“At the end of his life, the boxer Joe Louis said, ‘I did the best I could with what I had.’ It’s exactly what I would say of my work: I did the best I could with what I had.”
By all accounts, Philip Roth is one of the most devoted and prolific of modern authors. From his twenties through his mid-seventies, he has produced a huge body of fiction. For most of his life, he’s lived alone, spending long days at a standing desk and writing, writing, writing. According to a New Yorker story by David Remnick, “Roth’s writing days were spent in long silence — no distractions, no invitations, no calls, no e-mails.” Philip felt that writing was a “fanatical habit” for him — one that he pursued to the exclusion of virtually all the ordinary trappings of life in today’s world.
When he turned seventy-four, Philip decided to reread the authors he loved most: Dostoevsky, Conrad, Turgenev, Hemingway. Then he decided to reread all of his own books, from his latest, Nemesis, which was published in 2010, to his earliest novel, Goodbye Columbus. Why? Here’s how he put it: “I wanted to see if I had wasted my time writing. And thought it was more or less a success.”
But having taken a backward glance, at the age of seventy-nine, Philip has decided to lay down his pen. After devoting virtually his entire life to the novel — having studied them, taught them, and written them, he’s decided to let go of his striving and give up his “fanatical habit.”
When he was asked if another book might still emerge, Philip waxed philosophical: “I don’t think a new book will change what I’ve already done, and if I write a new book, it will probably be a failure. Who needs to read one more mediocre book?”
Wow! How wonderful to have such a committed work ethic and a body of work that you can look back over and feel at peace with. And how wonderful to devote a block of time to reread and ponder those authors who first influenced your writing: What a gift to yourself. And most of all, how wonderful to have the courage to stand by the work you’ve produced and resist the temptation to keep adding to it, even though readers may long for more. Here’s a case where not writing is actually a form of writing dangerously. Bravo, Philip.