On November 9th I was devastated to learn from The New Yorker online that Philip Roth was leaving writing. At seventy-nine years of age, he is retiring from his over fifty year career.
As one of the most successful living writers, his collection has not suffered over time. He has matured and gained perspective, and though I've enjoyed some of his work more than others, it has always been simply fantastic and utterly remarkable.
I have looked to Philip Roth as a mentor. His career and his body of work is beyond impressive. I cannot think of too many authors who have produced as much quality work as he has. Joyce Carol Oates is the only one who comes to mind, and I am convinced she writes in her sleep. I cannot imagine the sense of worth I would feel having achieved only a fraction of what he has.
At seventy-four, he re-read the his favorite authors then went through his own anthology beginning with the most recent published. After all was said and done, Roth viewed his work as mediocre. He did the best he could. Why write more? He argued that he was no longer living life, no longer interacting with it.
Julian Temper's article "In Which Philip Roth Gave Me Life Advice" in The Paris Review online captured my feelings of awe, and those of discontent not just in the wake of his retirement, but also in his attitude towards writing and his feelings towards his own work. It upsets me that Roth could be so pessimistic towards his own work, considering it commonplace. His recommendation to Temper was, "I would quit while you're ahead. Really, it's an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and you write, and you 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."
So much of Roth's later writing involves a man looking back at his life. My favorite Roth novel is Everyman. It is honest and beautiful. An aging man regrets his relationships, becomes incontinent, and questions his decisions. But that's what life, and death, is like. We wonder if we lived it well. We set ourselves up for disappointment by comparing ourselves to others we admire so much that it seems they have no faults. It is my hope that Roth, and everyone, writers and non-writers, stop being so hard on themselves. I would love for people, myself included, to see the beauty in their work, their relationships, and their life. It is my hope that Roth sees the artistry he has created in his paper worlds, and feels a real sense of a life lived well.