So, Philip Roth is calling it quits. After almost 60 years of writing, the bad boy of American literature -- the Jewish mischief-maker, the man who introduced us to Kafka's prostitute and Lech Walesa's buddy, Moishe Pipik -- has finally decided to retire his pen. It has been two months since Roth made this cataclysmic announcement, and the Internet is still buzzing with commentary, speculation and eulogy. But is this really the occasion to put our great American novelist to rest? Might Roth have instead, and perhaps even purposely, bequeathed to us even more words to satisfy our readerly appetites?
When he told Les Inrockuptibles in November that he had "no intention of writing in the next ten years... To tell the truth, I'm finished," I did not know what to think. Was it actually true? After all, this is the same writer who has said in a variety of interviews that writing is his life, and that without it, he is at a loss. "I wouldn't know what to do with myself if I didn't write," he told Philip Marchand in 2007. Several years later, he apparently disclosed to Rita Braver at CBS News that he will never stop writing, while telling the Daily Beast's Tina Brown that he fantasized about another long work of fiction that would keep him busy until his death. And in 2010, he told Terry Gross that he was a "kind of a maniac" who wrote every day, and then asked outright, "How could a maniac give up what he does?" How indeed?
Then again, this news made sense. His last several books, and not just the recent novellas, have all concerned twilights and end points, a fact most certainly not lost on Roth's critics who use "late style" and "eulogy" urgently and often. It brings to mind the condition of Nathan Zuckerman in I Married a Communist, who describes himself not so much as a player, but more of a listener. There have also been the occasional hints that he would drop during interviews, such as describing to Amy Ellis Nutt that writing was "largely an ordeal I have to face every day." On top of this, a journalist who had interviewed Roth a couple of years ago had told me that Nemesis would probably be his last novel, and that I should not be surprised if that is his final (fictional) word.
Yet, I cannot get out of my head the words of Mickey Sabbath, perhaps Roth's most notorious creation: "All I know how to do is antagonize." And that is what Philip Roth has been doing for the better part of his career, antagonizing his audience. Not just causing problems or arousing hostility -- and of course he has done plenty of that, with violated liver and green dildos and golden showers and graveside masturbations, but provoking his readers in a broader sense, making them uncomfortable, and challenging their secure conceptions of reality. "Because we don't know," as Nathan Zuckerman upbraids Dephine Roux in The Human Stain, arguing that "everyone knows" is nothing more than a "cliché and the beginning of the banalization of experience." This underscores what Zuckeroth had told us previously in American Pastoral, that "getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive: we're wrong."
I do not want to suggest here that Roth was being disingenuous about his retirement and that we should "get him wrong" in order to understand him more fully, but I do think that there is more going on with the November announcement than a mere statement of fact. After all, what writer announces her or his departure? Did Saul Bellow tell us that Ravelstein would be his final work? Has Toni Morrison, past 80 now, insinuated that she is not long for this literary life? Did the insanely prolific Stephen King ever suggest that his next horrific act would be his last? Actually, King did say that he was retiring in 2002, but it certainly was not long before book shelves were once again filled with his post-Dark Tower novels.
In fact, announcing his retirement is actually a very Rothian move. Let us keep in mind that this is an author who has a long history manipulating our perception of him and suggesting how we should interpret his words. In interview after interview -- even one he conducted with himself, no less! -- he tells us what a novel is or is not about, what he intended as he was writing it, and how disengaged from his own life his fiction actually is. This is the man who told us in 1993 that the events in Operation Shylock actually did happen -- conducting covert actions for the Mossad, anyone? -- and that The Plot Against America was in no way about the Bush administration (while in the same breath, telling us that George W. was "unfit to run a hardware store let alone a nation"). He anticipates our interpretations of him, and he is deft at muddying the waters. I have been studying Roth's work for over two decades, founded an organization for the appreciation of his fiction, and created from scratch a journal devoted to the study of his writings, and I have one thing to say to this: don't believe everything this man says.
We are not really being deceived by Roth's announcement, despite the obvious resonance of "deception" as a major theme in his work. But we are being goaded, mischievously coaxed into framing the novelist in a particular way, and this framing has everything to do with his legacy. Whether he want to admit it or not, Philip Roth is a celebrity. Not in the sense of Lindsay Lohan or even Norman Mailer, and no longer to the extent of Zuckerman/Roth in the immediate post-Carnovsky/Portnoy days. But over the past four years, especially, he has been the topic of countless articles, the focus of literati gossip, and the subject of ongoing media speculation. Much of this is public exposure that is completely out of the novelist's control, such as the strange "Jewish Shouting Mix 3" that resulted from a interview with James Marcus; the Literary Review's 2009 Bad Sex Prize nomination for The Humbling; the renewed charges of "misogyny," most notably amplified by Carmen Callil and the brouhaha over the Booker International Prize; the 2011 National Humanities Medal that he received from President Obama; the scandal of a "counterfeit Roth," where the author supposedly told an Italian reporter that he was disappointed in Obama's presidency; the much more recent hoax of Roth tweeting around on Twitter; the sports world's reaction to the author refusing to write a blurb for Scott Raab's book on LeBron James; and of course, the annual Monday morning quarterbacking every time Roth fails to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (and these are just a few examples). Did John Updike ever get this much inadvertent press?
Yet, while Roth found himself at the mercy of media hound dogging -- analogous to Swede Levov and Coleman Silk being held hostage to history? -- he nonetheless instigated his own share of publicity, and in doing so, helped to author his own celebrity. What are we to make of his surprise appearance on the "Philip Roth's Newark" tour; the "firing" of Roth's first official biographer, Ross Miller; the very public hiring of his second official biographer, Blake Bailey; his peculiar open letter to Wikipedia surrounding the Anatole Broyard references in their "Philip Roth" entry; and the weird charade, and still unexplained mystery, surrounding Roth's supposed next book, Notes for My Biographer? These are the kind of events that feed a reputation, adding spice to an otherwise austere existence, which is how Roth described his life to the BBC's Kristy Wark. His November announcement, catching almost everyone by surprise and predictably sparking an international media firestorm, is just the latest attempt of the author taking control of his own narrative.
Which brings us to a question hitting closer to home: How complicitous should we as readers, critics, and scholars be in helping to maintain a self-regulated image? What kind of cues should we take from the author, and how independent should we be in our interpretations? In the blogs that we maintain, in the Facebook musings that we post, in the profiles that we write, and in the articles and books that we continue to publish, let us continue to call Philip Roth what he is, arguably our greatest living novelist and, without a doubt, one of the most important literary figures in the last 50 years.
At the same time, let us keep in mind that we as readers should always be suspicious of authors bearing autobiographically tinged gifts. And scholars, especially, should resist the impulse to acquiesce uncritically. As cynical as it may sound, there is always a little bit of song and dance, a little bit of hucksterism underlying even the most serious of literary projects. If indeed there is always a puppet master behind the performance, much like Sabbath behind his Indecent Theater, then it is up to us as audience members to decide the extent of its seduction.
This blog is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post on Philip Roth, the esteemed American author, who recently announced his retirement from writing. To read other pieces in the series, click here. What are your thoughts on this landmark announcement? We invite you to submit pieces of 500-850 words for possible publication in The Huffington Post firstname.lastname@example.org.