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The Writer’s Miserable Lot

Philip Roth, via the Telegraph of London

When it comes to writing, I would generally think Philip Roth to be considerably more trustworthy than Elizabeth Gilbert — but about this I totally agree with her. She describes an encounter between Roth and a young writer who presented to Roth a copy of his just-published first book:

But then he told the guy to quit writing. Here’s the exact quote: “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.”

Now, listen. While it is certainly not historically unheard of for famous authors to complain about their torturous lives (Balzac: “I am a galley slave to pen and ink”; Styron: “Let’s face it. Writing is hell”; Mailer: “Every one of my books killed me a little more”) this statement — by one of America’s most lauded living novelists — struck me as particularly cranky.

Because, seriously — is writing really all that difficult? Yes, of course, it is; I know this personally — but is it that much more difficult than other things? Is it more difficult than working in a steel mill, or raising a child alone, or commuting three hours a day to a deeply unsatisfying cubicle job, or doing laundry in a nursing home, or running a hospital ward, or being a luggage handler, or digging septic systems, or waiting tables at a delicatessen, or — for that matter — pretty much anything else that people do?

Exactly. One of the things I love about Auden is his conviction that poetry is a craft, something that one can master (or at least become much better at) through hard, disciplined, methodical work. He had no patience for the all-too-common idea that the writer is some uniquely tortured soul, constantly visited by demons and/or benevolent spirits, unfit for ordinary human discourse and association, gripped by some inexplicable and inescapable compulsion to leak his heart’s blood onto the page, yadda yadda yadda.

To write well, one must work very hard. But then, to do almost anything well, one must work very hard. And for his work Roth became quite famous, endlessly lauded, and extremely rich, which is more than we can say for almost everyone else who is as good at his or her craft as Roth was at his. So to Roth I want to say: Yes, you worked your tail off to write those books; you were hard on yourself, you demanded excellence, you forced yourself to go back to your task again and again until you got it right, or as close to right as you could get. That’s admirable. But it wasn’t “torture,” and you were amply rewarded for your efforts. You should consider yourself far, far better off than most.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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