Why the greatest American novelist called it quits

If one were to take a poll on who was the greatest living American novelist, the name that would come up most often would be Philip Roth.

Philip Roth. Photo by Nancy Crampton.

Yes, we have people like Junot Diaz and Don DeLillo and Jennifer Egan and Jonathan Franzen, but they have yet to match the impact or the longevity of Roth. So it was bittersweet to learn that our greatest living novelist had decided to retire.

Roth says that he doesn’t want to continue writing if he isn’t able to produce something good. That’s an excellent reason to retire. But he has also claimed that he is tired of the frustration. As he told Charles McGrath in The New York Times:

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.

He has said something similar to the novelist Julian Tepper, which Tepper quotes in The Paris Review:

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.

He’s right, of course. Perhaps 99% of what I’ve written with an eye for publication has been thrown away. I have seven full versions of the book Mohamed 2.0. And each one of those seven versions went through hundreds of variations.

You hear about writers who are able to regurgitate a fully-formed novel on the first go, but I’m dubious how common (or true) this is. Jack Kerouac famously wrote On the Road in a three-week frenzy on a giant scroll of paper, so he wouldn’t have to stop and take the time to change sheets in his typewriter. What isn’t so well known is that he worked long and hard on notes and drafts before that three-week binge, and that he later revised the scroll. When you pick up that book, you are holding the result of a multi-year process that includes many edits.

John Updike’s Couples manuscript

You also hear of writers who do a great deal of preparation work, with outlines, flow charts, idea maps or index cards. The Nordic noir writer James Thompson says he crafts a full novel in his head before he puts fingers to keyboard. I need to ask him sometime how much of his first draft makes it to the finished book. His prose is so tight that I suspect he does significant re-writing.

So Roth is correct that most of what is written is crap and needs to be reworked. This is true for even the best writers. He is also correct that it is frustrating. But this is part of the process. It is necessary to create anything worthwhile.

I also think it is fun, much of the time. I love taking something I have written, figuring out if it is doing what I want it to be doing, and making it better and better through countless revisions. It gives me a feeling of accomplishment. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be worthwhile.

One comment on “Why the greatest American novelist called it quits
  1. Ian says:

    I fully agree, though I tend now to use writing as a cathartic experience…

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