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Far From Flatbush

Talk of the Town

The recently retired Philip Roth, America’s foremost living novelist, turns 80 on March 19. The media is in a frenzy over this event, probably because it's the last time in our lifetimes that we'll see such a public uproar over a writer’s birthday. Popular, prolific, polarizing, and critically acclaimed over six decades, Roth has achieved a level of fame no longer attainable to any writer.

A piece by Adam Gopnik about Roth's birthday, in the current New Yorker, talks about how the future of making a living as a writer in America is "in doubt as rarely before," and gives all the usual Internet-associated reasons for this. One sentence in particular jumped out at me: "It has never been easier to be a writer; and it has never been harder to be a professional writer."

I couldn’t agree more. Book publishing has always been America’s ultimate can’t do industry. No matter how much sense an idea makes, somebody in book publishing will always find a reason not to do it. When something miraculously goes right, no matter how routine, it’s always the exception that proves the rule. And even when things are going well, even when your books are selling, even before the Internet ravaged the writing profession with the notion that people should write for free and “content” should be available for free, somebody, somewhere along the line can always be counted on to fuck things up, either by design or by accident. If you had a bestseller, for example, chances are excellent that your publisher is busy figuring out a way to not pay you royalties. I could go on. But I won’t.

I’ll simply congratulate Roth for surviving and thriving in this kind of environment since 1960, when his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, was published. Happy birthday, Philip! You’ve been an inspiration.
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