Goodbye, Philip!

As Israel threatened to invade Gaza, and the slaughter continued in Syria, and the United States drew closer to the (hyperbolic) "fiscal cliff," an event happened that drew everyone's attention. It was momentous, earth-shaking, epochal. People throughout the world dropped whatever they were doing: carrying their groceries, lifting a suitcase, changing a diaper. The transformative event was this: Philip Roth announced that he had decided to stop writing.

Lee Siegel, O Estado de S.Paulo

25 de novembro de 2012 | 01h00

Forgive the sarcasm, but the hoopla that surrounded Roth's self-dramatizing declaration was nothing short of absurd. Part of the reason it was absurd was that a writer giving up writing at a late point in his or her career is hardly a newsworthy event. Roth's announcement was predicated on his sense of his own importance. General Motors deciding not to make any more cars deserves a public announcement. Obama deciding that because he would like to start sleeping in he no longer wants to be president deserves a public announcement. The Pope deciding that he wants to give up the papacy to become a film director deserves an announcement. Not the news that Philip Roth, who will celebrate his 80th birthday next spring, has come to the conclusion that he no longer has anything to say.

Despite its glaring irrelevance and its hint of megalomania, Roth's news was much talked about. It was on the news shows and in the newspapers. The New York Times devoted two articles to the subject, one of them a long one, accompanied by a photograph of Roth and a caption that read, "Philip Roth said he decided to stop writing in 2010 but he kept it to himself." 

Well, I don't mean to compare myself to Philip Roth, but it just so happens that in 2010, that very same year, I decided to stop eating prunes, and I also kept that to myself. I know why the ultra-narcissistic Roth made his histrionic announcement. But why did it attract so much attention?

One reason could be that Roth accompanied his renunciation with a proclamation that not only was he no longer going to write fiction, but he was not going to read it, either. At a time when rapid cultural change has everyone worried about the future of reading, the announcement by a man considered America's greatest novelist that he is not going to read novels any more came as a confirmation of people's worst fears. And despite all the novels published, and all the (publicity-driven) excitement that accompanies new novels by certain writers, every literary person feels the novel's growing irrrelevance in the shadow of movies, television, and all the new forms of visual storytelling that are being invented on the internet. 

In fact it is the slow extinction of literacy and literary culture that has been responsible for Roth's grossly inflated reputation. It was precisely when American Indians were being exterminated that the public began to sentimentally inflate the image of the American Indian. Over the past ten year so, Roth has become a literary fetish object. A beautiful stylist, immensely cultivated, devoted to the rigors of art in his work, he became a national monument to a literary culture that was disappearing. I recently had the pleasure of having several long conversations with Al Pacino for a profile I wrote about him. A modest man, Pacino dismissed all the awards he gets as "survivor awards." That describes a lot of the praise Roth's recent, inadequate fiction has gotten. What people were admiring was the fact that he wrote it at All. 

There was not a little anger in Roth's announcement, and I admire him for that. In a fascinating and also much-talked-about essay that he wrote for the New Yorker magazine's blog some months ago, Roth took Wikipedia to task for misinterpreting his novels in the online encyclopedia's entry on him. His contempt for the superficiality and obtuseness of the digital age was clear. You felt that behind his announcement was a similar petulance. The world had become too stupid to waste his imaginative energy on.

Admirable, but characteristically narcissistic. The world has moved on, that's all. I stopped reading Roth some years ago, when I read his novel "The Dying Animal" for a review I was writing of it. It was typical Roth: self-enclosed, self-celebrating, sex-obsessed. It was about a middle-aged man having an affair with a much younger woman. He discovers that she has breast cancer. She undergoes a mastectomy, and he feels sexually repulsed. This experience teaches him a valuable lesson: sex pales before mortality. The novel was ugly, crass and stupid. I wrote in my review that Roth had a beautiful style but inferior content: I said that it was like using a piece of Carrara marble to carve a dildo. Roth, so I heard, really didn't like that, and now, whenever I meet one of his friends at a party, I get the cold Shoulder. 

Yet it's clear that American readers-not Roth's own formidable publicity machine- have become too sophisticated about sex, and too weary of narcissism in all its myriad forms, to enjoy Roth's decidedly mid-twentieth century male experience any more. In the New York Times article about Roth's Great Renunciation, a little fact was mentioned in passing; the writer of the article made nothing of it. The fact was this: far from no longer writing, Roth is now writing a novella via email with the 8-year-old daughter of a former girlfriend. 

That's right, the American author more closely related with sex than any other, the American author who, in fact, probably got passed over for the Nobel Prize because of his narrow obsession with sex-this phallic-obsessed writer is collaborating on a work of fiction with an 8-year-old girl. On email. No, Roth did not abandon his art, like Prospero burying his wand. Art itself has washed its hands of this fatally trivial and embarrassing writer. 

To borrow from the title of Roth's first short stories, "Goodbye Columbus," Goodbye Philip! And, please, don't let the door hit you on the way out.

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