Is writing torture
They say it is, the rest writers know themselves
Are writers happy they became writers? Until someone conducts a survey—and I hope they will—it remains an open question. At the moment, it is at the heart of a quarrel between Elizabeth Gilbert and (indirectly) Philip Roth. It all started a few months ago, on the Paris Review Daily, when one Julian Tepper published a piece describing an encounter with Roth at an Upper West Side deli. Waiting on his hero’s table, Tepper tremulously presented Roth with “Balls,” his first novel. Roth warmly congratulated him, and then offered: “I would quit while you’re ahead. Really. It’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and you 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.” Soon after this exchange, Roth announced that he’d quit writing. Apparently, he’s never been happier. Affronted by Roth’s advice to Tepper, Gilbert launched an earnest defense of the scribbling life, declaring that writing is a “great” job. This is a classified piece of information, she claims, kept secret by vain, jealous older writers.
Some readers will share Gilbert’s distaste for Roth’s peevishness: Why would a writer as dedicated to literature and as accomplished as Roth speak so bitterly? Why must he insist on being so uninspiring, so ungenerous? Why must he damn the young? There may well have been something dodgy in Roth’s naysaying, something potentially strategic, some sly counter-Oedipal scheme by an elder of American literature set on sabotaging any and all whippersnappers-in-waiting. It seems perfectly likely that Roth felt threatened by a younger writer whose first novel is called “Balls” (Roth told Tepper that he was surprised he hadn’t thought of the title himself). Or maybe Roth sized up this waiter-writer as someone who might publish a creepily detailed account of his breakfast order on the blog of the Paris Review, as he indeed did. Roth was being cagey with the guy. Gilbert was right about that.
I’m trying to agree with Gilbert when she celebrates writing for the way it allows you “get to live within the realm of your own mind.” But I know plenty of writers for whom living in their own mind is a far from pleasant experience. 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. That is why, for instance, Elizabeth Gilbert herself sat down to write her Roth call-out, and it’s why I’m writing this. It’s why the author of “Balls” wrote Roth a desperate apology letter in the Daily Beast. These are not the acts of contentment. And it’s why Roth, like a recovering addict, is taking it day by day, trying hard not to write anything at all. Like Saul Bellow’s Herzog—reclining on a couch at the end of that book, finally recovering from his fiendish letter-writing addiction—Roth has “no messages for anyone.”
That’s the kind of a person it takes to be a writer: someone who’s zealous and ready to argue, someone who has Philip Roth tell him, “It’s torture, don’t do it,” and replies, “You had me at ‘torture.’ ” You don’t enter into it because it’s a great lifestyle decision—it isn’t—you do it because, for whatever reason, you believe in it, and you believe in it because, for whatever reason, you need to believe in it. Roth was messing with Tepper; he was testing his faith and strengthening it. He wanted the guy to earn the title: author of the novel “Balls.”
My guess is that Tepper was heartened to discover that even the great Roth, it turns out, hates his life. For struggling writers, wretches that they are, that is inspiring.
(The New Yorker)
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