Wednesday, June 29, 2011

"I just want to keep writing now"

In an interview with Jan Dalley in The Financial Times a couple of days ago, Philip Roth dropped a provocative detail:

“I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did.”

For the kinds of people interested in an interview with someone like Roth, this might seem sad, or even cynical. My first reaction was frustration: I've long read and admired Roth's work and this comment seemed a needless slap in the face to those who still glean sustenance from fiction.

After reading and thinking about the whole interview, though, I don't think it's quite that simple; this isn't a case of grumpsterism or capitulation. When Roth says he is more interested in "history and biography," he is telling us something about his own project at this late stage in his life, which is more about reflection and preservation than it is about exploration. 

The real shift it seems is not away from fiction but toward writing as a means of survival. Roth's greatest expressed desire is to just keep writing:

“My goal would be to find a big fat subject that would occupy me to the end of my life, and when I finish it I’ll die. What’s agony is starting, I hate starting them. I just want to keep writing now and end when it ends.” 

That he would rather look back on his life and times than read the work of others is not shocking nor is it an indictment. It is, quite simply and naturally, the sign of an artist who is nearing the end.


  1. Nicely put, Ape - "the sign of an artist nearing his end." That, in itself, is much, much sadder than the first-dash reaction that Roth has no more use for his own medium. And also, I guess I never realized Roth is such a lightening rod for cynicism. Maybe folks are just trying to make jokes, but Twitter's been 'aflutter with Roth haters - ex,: "Roth says he'll no longer read fiction. Now we're even." (Which, is a little bit funny - but I don't understand the sentiment behind it.)

  2. That's how he said it that bothered me. "I wised up". Now if it's not cheap provocation, I don't know what this is. I understand your point Ape, but I think Roth showed the manners of a spoiled child.

  3. I think you fairly treat Roth's grappling with his own mortality.  Many may have the same thoughts about their life work but lack the fame such that a journalist wants to record those thoughts.

  4. I have known a lot of recognizable writers who refuse to read fiction in their own genre, and some any fiction at all, lest it taint their own work. We learn and grow by reading fiction, and we also mimic what we read. That he is concentrating on the end of his life's work, especially in the wake of his Man Booker prize, seems to say that he does not want to be affected by anyone else's work and just research and write what may be his seminal work, at least to himself. Philip Roth seems to be the author most people either love or hate, and some just love to hate him.

  5. I had the same initial reaction, but after reading what he had to say, I understood that. Everyone goes through reading phases, and I don't think he was in any way trying to disparage fiction. Instead, I think, as you say, he is at a place in his life where he wants something different from his reading. I get that.