This post has been corrected. See the note below.
Over the past 24 hours or so, some of my friends have been all atwitter on Facebook (is that a mixed metaphor?) about an essay by Elizabeth Gilbert posted Tuesday on the new publishing industry website Bookish.
Bookish is a joint venture of Hachette, Penguin and Simon & Schuster (three of the so-called Big Six publishers): part editorial and part e-commerce, not unlike Goodreads, although without the social media component. It launched on Monday evening and I have no idea whether it will be successful — although the fact that the site is offering original content is encouraging.
The Gilbert essay is the first such effort, a take on Philip Roth and his reaction to a young writer who pressed a book on him. That writer, whose name is Julian Tepper, blogged about the experience in late December for the Paris Review.
Tepper is a waiter at a Manhattan deli Roth frequents; he handed over a copy of his first novel, “Balls,” while Roth was eating “his usual nova, eggs, and onions (egg whites only); a bialy (hold the cream cheese and butter); and a large, fresh-squeezed orange juice.”
Roth’s reaction? He congratulated Tepper, then added, “with seeming sincerity”: “Yeah, this is great. But I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and 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.”
Gilbert uses this as a starting point to take on the idea of tortured writers in general and Roth’s struggle in particular, asking, “[S]eriously — 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?”
She has a point, I’ll admit; for the right kind of personality, writing is “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.” And yet, what Gilbert overlooks is that, in a field whose rewards are often fleeting, part of the fun lies in grumbling about how difficult it is.
Roth, who announced his retirement shortly after his encounter with Tepper, recently described the process this way: “You build a book out of sentences. And the sentences are built up out of details. So you’re working brick by brick. And the bricks are heavy.” Gilbert herself cites Balzac (“I am a galley slave to pen and ink”), William Styron (“Let’s face it. Writing is hell”) and Norman Mailer (“Every one of my books killed me a little more”). And they’re not the only ones.
For years, I’ve found solace in “The Writer’s Quotation Book,” edited by James Charlton, a slight compendium of quotes about the writing life. There are all the usual noble sentiments about literature and how it enlarges us, but the best stuff, by far, are the complaints.
Here’s Red Smith: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” Or Georges Simenon: “Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness.”
Peter de Vries insists, “I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.” And then, of course, there’s Hemingway: “They can’t yank a novelist like they can a pitcher. A novelist has to go the full nine even if it kills him.”
This, I think, is what Roth was saying, that it’s tough to have to go the full nine every time. In that sense, his comments are more encouragement than admonition, which Tepper seems to understand as well. In his Paris Review post, he ponders what he should have said, and finally settles on the key faith of the writer, the thing that makes all the work, the struggle, worthwhile.
“I still feel strongly,” Tepper writes, “that the one thing a writer has above all else, the reward which is bigger than anything that may come to him … is the weapon against boredom. The question of how to spend his time, what to do today, tomorrow, and during all the other pockets of time in between when some doing is required: this is not applicable to the writer. For he can always lose himself in the act of writing and make time vanish. After which, he actually has something to show for his efforts. Not bad.”
[Updated, 2:43 p.m., Feb. 6: This post inititally referred to the novelist who passed his book to Philip Roth as Jake Tepper. His name is Julian Tepper.]