Philip Roth

The Silence

Q: Looking back, how do you recall your 50-plus years as a writer?

Roth: Exhilaration and groaning. Frustration and freedom. Inspiration and uncertainty. Abundance and emptiness. Blazing forth and muddling through. The day-by-day repertoire of oscillating dualities that any talent withstands — and tremendous solitude, too. And the silence: 50 years in a room silent as the bottom of a pool, eking out, when all went well, my minimum daily allowance of usable prose.

Philip Roth

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A note by Philip Roth, written in a first edition of Portnoy’s Complaint, which he recently reread after 45 years.

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Miserable people

Writers are very often miserable people: some thrive on unhappiness, others don’t. But few are immune from feelings of deep and avid dissatisfaction. We write because we are constantly discontented with almost everything, and need to use words to rearrange it, all of it, and set the record straight.

Avi Steinberg, “Is Writing Torture?

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Writing is frustration

I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time. I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.

Philip Roth

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Roth: Stop now

Then Roth, who, the world would learn sixteen days later, was retiring from writing, said, in an even tone, with seeming sincerity, “Yeah, this is great. But I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”

I managed, “It’s too late, sir. There’s no turning back. I’m in.”

Nodding slowly, he said to me, “Well then, good luck.”

Julian Tepper, “In Which Philip Roth Gave Me Life Advice

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Philip Roth interviewed on “Fresh Air”

TERRY GROSS: So if [writing] is so hard, why do it?

PHILIP ROTH: Well, that’s a question I ask myself too. I’ve been doing it since 1955. So that’s 55 years. It’s hard to give up something you’ve been doing for 55 years, which has been at the center of your life, where you spend six, eight, sometimes ten hours a day. And I always have worked every day, and I’m kind of a maniac, you know. How could a maniac give up what he does? Tell me.

GROSS: Is that seven days a week, like Saturday and Sunday?

ROTH: Yeah, I usually do, yeah.

GROSS: That is obsessive.

ROTH: Maniacal.

GROSS: Maniacal?

ROTH: Give it its right name. It’s maniacal.

Via nprfreshair

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Roth: “The ordeal is part of the commitment”

“I have a slogan I use when I get anxious writing, which happens quite a bit: ‘the ordeal is part of the commitment.’ It’s one of my mantras. It makes a lot of things doable.”

Philip Roth

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Portrait: Philip Roth


Philip Roth at his home in rural Connecticut, 2004. (Via.) Photo by James Nachtwey. More about Roth’s work habits here.

Philip Roth on the novel’s “cultic” future

More clips from this interview here.

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Philip Roth: “the desire to get the work right”

“I have to have something to do that engages me totally. Without that, life is hell for me. I can’t be idle and I don’t know what to do other than write. If I were afflicted with some illness that left me otherwise okay but stopped me writing, I’d go out of my mind. I don’t really have other interests. My interest is in solving the problems presented by writing a book. That’s what stops my brain spinning like a car wheel in the snow, obsessing about nothing. Some people do crossword puzzles to satisfy their need to keep the mind engaged. For me, the absolutely demanding mental test is the desire to get the work right. The crude cliché is that the writer is solving the problem of his life in his books. Not at all. What he’s doing is taking something that interests him in life and then solving the problem of the book, which is, How do you write about this? The engagement is with the problem that the book raises, not with the problems you borrow from living. Those aren’t solved — they are forgotten in the gigantic problem of finding a way of writing about them.”

Philip Roth

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How Writers Write: Philip Roth

“Without a novel I’m empty. I’m empty and not very happy.” From a writer’s point of view, it is touching to hear a giant like Roth confess to a feeling I know well. Here Roth discusses his writing process. I love the brief glimpse of Roth at his stand-up desk (beginning at about 3:23), composing his novels on what looks like the ancient blue screen of a DOS-based word processor. Roth uses a stand-up desk because of a bad back. “He works standing up, paces around while he’s thinking and has said he walks half a mile for every page he writes.” (link) How comforting it is to see the homely touch of those extra reams of paper stacked under the monitor to boost it up to eye level.

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“The Lazarus Project” by Aleksandar Hemon

An older friend of mine went to high school in Newark with Philip Roth, Weequahic High School class of 1950. For obvious reasons, I grill my friend about Roth whenever the opportunity presents itself, and in one of these interrogations I learned that Swede Levov, the “steep-jawed insentient Viking” who is the hero of Roth’s American Pastoral, was based on a real classmate at Weequahic.

I should not have been surprised. Roth has been playing peekaboo with his readers for years, inserting himself to varying degrees into his fictions. It has become an ongoing theme: like the silhouette of Hitchcock in old movies, we seem to recognize Roth — or aspects of Roth — in all his books, particularly in the flawed writers, Peter Tarnopol, Nathan Zuckerman, even a character named “Philip Roth.” They are all plainly Roth, the reader understands, and they are all invented too. The point of all this line-blurring is to get beyond fictional realism and closer to reality, to the actual lived human experience. Roth’s novels have a vivid, confessional quality not just because Roth is an extraordinary writer (though obviously he is), but because his books pretend to be more than fictions — they sometimes are more than fictions.

A similar fission occurs whenever a writer’s face seems to hover behind the pages. Conrad, Melville and Hemingway all are recognizable in their stories. Even in a fantasy like The Great Gatsby, the reader’s experience is influenced by the knowledge that Nick Carraway shares much of his creator’s biography: Midwestern boyhood, Ivy League education, witness to “riotous” Jazz Age parties. Nick is the thinnest mask for Fitzgerald. When we read Gatsby, we understand that the voice and the sensibility are Fitzgerald’s own. In Sophie’s Choice, William Styron goes a step further, all but stepping onstage himself, undisguised, inside the story. Continue reading →

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