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Far From Flatbush

Port Noise Complaint

I mentioned in yesterday's post, "Old School", how Portnoy's Complaint had blown my mind at "a tender age." As Philip Roth's 80th birthday is March 19, the tale of how this happened bears repeating. I originally told the story in my interview with Kendra Holliday of The Beautiful Kind, when she asked me about my influences as writer, and I said that Roth was among my "Holy Trinity" of influences. Here's the story:

As for Philip Roth, whom I also quote at the beginning of Beaver Street, no book has ever blown my mind the way that Portnoy's Complaint did when I read it at 16. My aunt had gotten the book through a book-of-the-month club. We were visiting her in New Jersey one day, and she's telling my parents about this disgusting book that she wants to get out of the house. I'm listening to the conversation, and I think she's saying "Port Noise Complaint," which sounds like a boring book about people complaining about foghorns and squawking seagulls. I couldn't figure out what the big deal was. Anyway, she gives the book to my parents, and a couple of days later I'm sitting at my desk, doing homework. I look up at the bookshelf, and the title catches my eye. Oh, PORTNOY'S Complaint. So I start reading it, and by the time I got to the chapter called "Whacking Off," I understood why everybody in the world was talking about it. Read More 
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Old School

A younger Philip Roth in Newark, NJ. Photo from Philip Roth: Unmasked © Bob Peterson.
Philip Roth: Unmasked, the new documentary by William Karel and Livia Manera, is playing for free this week at the Film Forum, in Manhattan, so I went around the corner last night and saw it. (It will be broadcast March 29, on PBS.)

Having had Portnoy’s Complaint blow my mind at a tender age; having then read about half of Roth's prodigious 30-book output; and having been profoundly influenced by his writing, I found the film mesmerizing and instructive. Roth is as witty and compelling in person as he is in his books. Listening to him talk, for 90 minutes, about his early life, his parents, his process, his work habits, and the reaction to his books, made him seem like the kind of entertaining fellow I'd enjoy hanging out with, which I suppose was the point. Roth knows how to perform for the camera.

His tale of a cab driver named Portnoy picking him up soon after Portnoy’s Complaint became a scandalous sensation is typical of the stories he tells throughout the film. Roth asks the cabbie, who doesn’t recognize him, if people have been giving him a hard time since the book came out. Portnoy tells Roth that everybody who gets into the cab makes some kind of joke about his name. “I want to kill the son of a bitch who wrote that book,” he says. When the ride ends, Roth tells him that he wrote the book. “You son of a bitch!” Portnoy says. “I thought it was you.” Roth gives him a $20 tip.

Though Roth retired this year, one of the most striking things about the film is how old school he is. Not once does he mention the Internet, e-books, tweeting, blogging, or any of a dozen other things that working 21st century writers must contend with. There’s exactly one shot of a computer—it appears to be an early-1990s model—but you don’t see Roth using it. He writes with a pen, standing up at a podium-like desk, in his Connecticut house. Writing standing up, he explains, makes it easier to think, and anytime he gets stuck, he just walks around his study until the ideas flow again.

Most of what Roth says further illuminates aspects of his life and career I already knew about. I didn’t know, however, that he dated Mia Farrow (she discusses their “friendship”), and that chronic back pain nearly drove him to suicide. A shot of Roth hobbling along a path in a cemetery drives home just how frail he is, and that his 80th birthday is impending. He says that the idea of death makes him feel “sad,” but it doesn’t worry him.

One bit of practical advice I got from the film: Roth says that any time a writer is born into a family, the family is “ruined.” He then explains that you can’t publish a book like Portnoy’s Complaint without preparing your parents. Which reminded me that I’ve got some of my own preparing to do, and that it would be a very good idea to do it before I publish any future volumes. Read More 
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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. Read More 
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Is Writing Torture?

There's a story making the rounds about Philip Roth's encounter with a waiter in a Manhattan deli. The waiter, Julian Tepper, presented the literary lion, who was about announce his retirement, with a copy of his first novel, Balls. In a piece that Tepper then published on the Paris Review Daily website, he said that Roth had warmly congratulated him and then told him, "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."

Is what Roth said true? Or is it suspiciously reminiscent of the kind of advice that Traci Lords now gives to aspiring porn stars? In short, are these the words of a fantastically successful person who doesn't like the idea of a potential competitor following the path that they so brilliantly blazed to glory?

Since it’s far too late for me to quit while I’m ahead, and I’ve devoted the better part of my career to attempting to follow a nonfiction route similar to the fiction path that Roth had taken, allow me to weigh in with an objective opinion.

No, I do not think writing is torture. Yes, it’s a difficult thing to do, and it requires an enormous amount of discipline and commitment. But it suits me perfectly well, because I happen to be very good at sitting alone in a room, listening to the voices in my head, getting those voices down on a computer screen (or paper), and then spending the next several years rewriting those words and, yes, throwing away most of the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth drafts. (And maybe the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth, too.) But I ultimately find writing to be satisfying, which is why I do it. And every day, once I get in the groove, I often find it pleasurable. If this were not the case, I’d have quit decades ago. Because unlike Roth, my first genuine success didn’t come quickly. Writing was a compulsion, something I felt I had to do, and that’s what kept me going.

What makes writing “awful” and “torture” is the business side of it—dealing with the stupidity and fear of publishers who are looking for pretty faces rather than good books; chasing after people for money; devoting more time and energy to promotion than writing; and simply surviving in a business that’s undergoing the most traumatic upheaval since the invention of the printing press.

But that’s not what Roth told Tepper. So, my advice to young Tepper is: Don’t listen to Roth or to anybody else. And don’t write because you think it might be a good career path. Write because you can’t not write. Write because it gives you pleasure. And keep your day job. Read More 
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