07/15/2013 05:18 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2013

Roth and Munro: When Authors Retire


A few weeks ago one of the most vaunted English-language writers, Alice Munro, announced her retirement from writing, following the example of Philip Roth, who announced his retirement last October. While Shakespeare -- that literary touchstone most often stopped and frisked -- obliquely dramatized his retirement from drama in Prospero's famous staff-breaking in The Tempest, Munro and Roth both took news of their retirements to the media. Why should these writers make such a direct public announcement?

The primary explanation Munro and Roth provide for their retirements is fatigue. "I no longer have the stamina," said Roth; "What I feel now is that I don't have the energy anymore," echoed Munro. As Munro and Roth are writers who treated their readership to books at impressively regular intervals (Munro's appearing every three or four years, and Roth's, for much of his career, every two years), announcing retirement can be seen as designed to eliminate the public's stressing expectations, perhaps the lone drawback of prolificacy.

Both Munro and Roth also expressed pleasure in now being able to live regular private lives, perhaps signaling a withdrawal not only from writing but from the public life of a public figure. From their comments one has the sense that constantly writing compromised their ability to live a private life on its own terms. Roth commented that before retiring "I needed my life as a springboard for my fiction." Munro spoke excitedly, "I can have people around a lot more," and Roth seems now to relish in the quotidian, saying, "Every morning I study a chapter in 'iPhone for Dummies.'"

Yet the notion of reclaiming a life unlived distracts from their achievement of having completed their life's work. A writer's life cut short -- Keats, Marlowe, the Brontës -- haunts literary history, and the writer's fear of dying prematurely, before fulfilling his potential, once made for some of the West's finest writing -- John Milton's "Lycidas," Percy Shelly's "Adonis." How fittingly modern, then, that writers nowadays could, in effect, live too long: "I feel that I've done what I wanted to do, and that makes me feel fairly content," said Munro. With this in mind, their public announcements of retirement seem assertions of having beat death, which is tragic, not merely inevitable, when it cuts life short.

One imagines these masters now moving quietly through their homes. Perhaps they arrive at their bookshelf, an index finger curling to take down American Pastoral, The Moons of Jupiter. Or perhaps they are just sitting over a gently steaming meal. They have done what they set out to do, and now it is like the beginning, their preparing to set out again.