Roth's Complaint: Elizabeth Gilbert Takes on Philip Roth
"Eat, Pray, Love" and "Committed" author Elizabeth Gilbert (whose new novel "The Signature of All Things" is set to hit shelves later this year) thinks writing is better than most kinds of work. That's why she has a bone to pick with one of her literary heroes, Philip Roth, who told young novelist (and diehard fan) Julian Tepper that he should quit the "awful field" of writing. Gilbert lays out her argument in this exclusive essay for Bookish.
The young man's name is Julian Tepper and he works at a deli on the Upper West Side, where Mr. Roth sometimes enjoys breakfast. Mr. Tepper--a waiter, who is also a newly published author--proudly presented Mr. Roth (his hero) with a copy of his first novel, the wonderfully named "Balls." Mr. Roth is a hero of mine, too, so I'm happy to report that he was gracious about the gift, and congratulated the waiter/writer on his accomplishment.
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?
Not really, right?
In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb here and share a little secret about the writing life that nobody likes to admit: Compared to almost every other occupation on earth, it's f*cking great. I say this as somebody who spent years earning exactly zero dollars for my writing (while waiting tables, like Mr. Tepper) and who now makes many dollars at it. But zero dollars or many dollars, I can honestly say it's the best life there is, because you get to live within the realm of your own mind, and that is a profoundly rare human privilege. What's more, you have no boss to speak of. You're not exposed to any sexual abuse or toxic chemicals on the job site (unless you're sexually abusing yourself, or eating Doritos while you type). You don't have to wear a nametag, and--unless you are exceptionally clumsy--you rarely run the risk of cutting off your hand in the machinery. Writing, I tell you, has everything to recommend it over real work.
In fact, maybe that's why established authors complain so loudly about their tormented existences--so nobody else will find out how great writing actually is, and take their jobs away. (Kind of like those people who come home from amazing holidays, and then lie to their neighbors about how terrible that remote Mexican beach was, just to make sure the place remains undiscovered and unruined forever.)
Or maybe it's just vanity that makes authors gripe so much about their ordeal. Maybe writers have simply come to believe themselves to be so very special, and their work so very important, that they can't imagine anybody else capable of doing it: You, little one, could never possibly create what I have created, or withstand all that I have withstood, so you'd best not try at all.
Again, I ask: Seriously?
Look, the sad reality is that we live in a sorrowful world, where people all around us suffer and die in great injustice and pain. That suffering is real. And even those souls who are not abjectly suffering at any given moment are often bored and restless, or trapped in truly rotten occupations where they are daily degraded and unappreciated in a thousand mundane ways. To choose to be a mere writer in this tearful world, then (either for pleasure, or for a living) is a profoundly luxurious act. Because let's keep it in perspective, writers: Our books don't exactly feed the hungry. We ain't saving the planet here, people.
But even more than being a luxurious act, writing is a voluntary act. Becoming a novelist, then, is not some sort of dreadful Mayan curse, or dark martyrdom that only a chosen few can withstand for the betterment of humanity. Writing is just a thing. It is a lovely thing, mind you, and it personally means the entire world to me, but I still recognize that it is just a thing. It is a thing that you can choose to pursue with your life because it excites you, or because you have a flair for it, or because it seems more rewarding than toiling away in an office. Sometimes it even works. Not always, but sometimes. If you're lucky, you might be able to make a small living out of this thing. If you're exceedingly lucky, other people might come to appreciate your gifts. If you are phenomenally lucky, you might become lionized in your own lifetime, like the great Philip Roth himself.
And if that should ever happen to you--if you should ever find yourself both successful and loved--please do try to keep in mind that you have been blessed, not blighted. So maybe take it easy on the complaining, OK? And when you encounter young novelists who want to follow you into this marvelously pointless and wonderfully unproductive occupation, please do not discourage those good people. Why not instead try this approach?
Simply extend your hand and say, "Welcome."
That much, at least, should be easy.
Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of "The Signature of All Things," coming from Viking in October.
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