Roth on Roth

I’ve been reading Volume IV of the always intriguing Paris Review Interviews with writers—poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists, journalists and critics. In the introduction to this volume Salman Rushdie calls the set “the finest available inquiry into the how of literature.” They began over fifty years ago in the first issue of the periodical (1953) with an interview of E. M. Forster. A year later an interview was conducted with William Styron, then only 27, who was one of the Paris Review’s founders.

Volume IV includes an interview of Philip Roth conducted in 1984 when Roth, then 51, was well into his writing life, having recently published Portnoy’s Complaint and in 1983, The Anatomy Lesson. The interview begins with Roth describing his writing day and what he goes through each time he starts a new novel. He says he works almost every day, all day, morning and afternoon. “If I sit there like that for two or three years, at the end I have a book.”

Every writer knows that the beginning, sometimes simply the first sentence, is usually the hardest part of writing a new work. Even for Roth, a writer who has published countless works of fiction and non-fiction, it is a bit of an ordeal. He says, “I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that’s alive…that has some life in it.”

This is a tale told by many writers—those first hundred pages often end up in the recycling basket. I imagine that is an impossibly difficult thing for any writer. To be utterly frank, more than once I have thought of doing the same.

But there is another far more difficult struggle that Roth goes through when he embarks on a new book. That is the struggle for a problem, a dilemma, a predicament that makes for compelling fiction. When he begins, he claims he hasn’t the slightest idea what that will be. “What matters most isn’t there at all.”

He says the central character in his novels have to be going through a major transformation or “radical displacement” in their life. And to create this kind of person, Roth says he needs to be going a little bit crazy. He comments, “…a writer has to be driven crazy to help him see. A writer needs his poisons. The antidote to his poisons is often a book.” Does this suggest the novels he writes are Roth’s way of getting in a little writing therapy?

Roth has always downplayed the power of literature to bring about social or personal change. He reiterates his position in the interview: “I don’t believe that, in my society, novels effect serious changes in anyone other than the handful of people who are writers, whose own novels are of course seriously affected by other novelists’ novels. I can’t see anything like that happening to the ordinary reader, nor would I expect to.”

Here he leaves unanswered the question of just how one writer’s work influences another. Writers often say they have been influenced by one writer after another, by Tolstoy or Chekhov or Fitzgerald or Hemingway. I always wonder in what way. They may have greatly admired their work, but how was that admiration translated into their own work?

Roth’s view about the effects of literature on the ordinary reader is contrary to the abundant evidence, in some cases anecdotal in others empirical, that suggest otherwise. See, for example, Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther, the fascinating answers given by many well-known individuals to the question “What book did you read when you were young that most influenced your life?" at The Academy of Achievement Web site, the life-changing accounts given in Jack Canfield and Gay Hendrick's volume, You’ve Got to Read This Book: 55 People Tell the Story of the Book That Changed Their Life, Gordon and Patricia Sabine’s Books That Made the Difference, the “Changing Lives Through Literature Program,” etc.

The interviewer, Hermione Lee, who has written a study of Roth’s work, then asks him, “What do novels do then for the ordinary reader?” Roth replies as if he had not earlier said they don’t. “At their best writers change the way readers read. That seems to me the only realistic expectation. It also seems to me quite enough. Reading novels is a deep and singular pleasure, a gripping and mysterious human activity…”

Here we have Roth saying a novel does sometimes give rise of a reader’s pleasure and change the way they read, whatever he means by that. In this sense he does acknowledge the “power of the pen” to influence a person and if he is willing to admit these not insignificant effects, surely it is conceivable for a work of literature to have an even greater impact on some readers, if only to cause them to think more seriously about an issue or, in the most extreme, but far from unknown case, of changing the course of their life.