I went to the Center for Fiction last night for a Philip Roth evening. The event was advertised as a “celebration,” of him, as opposed to his work. Are they one and the same? I don’t think so. And I know Philip Roth doesn’t either. There is a long quote by Roth in the program from a speech he gave in 1988 when he accepted an award for “The Counterlife” in which he says, “You begin with the raw material, the facts…One by one you turn them over in your mind…The imagination gets to work… Eventually there is a novel. Readers appear. Among them are those who detest the severity of the mind and the violence of the imagination…These readers are happy only with the facts…”
The National Book Critics Circle was a co-sponsor and a panel of its members had been invited to discuss Roth’s work. The metaphoric red carpet had been laid out but the audience was not standing on it. We were on line in the small lobby of the Center, which is in the Mercantile Library on 47th Street just off Fifth Avenue. I was squashed between two plain, ordinary disgruntled writers. Though I have had my five minutes of fame in the UK and the USA (well, maybe ten minutes all together), I am mostly a plain and ordinary writer, though I am not disgruntled. The woman writer behind me, in fact, was more than disgruntled, she was distraught. “I’m rattled,’ she said. “I’ve been in alone all day inside my own head and all these people are making me nervous. Can’t they just let us upstairs at the same time as the celebrities.” And the man in front of me said, “I wrote my senior thesis on the Zuckerman persona and, when Roth was in Minnesota for a reading, I presented it to him for his autograph, and when I told him what it was about, he shoved it back at me.” Why this should have been surprising, I do not know.
Finally, we were let upstairs into the narrow room where all the seats within visual distance of the stage were reserved for the special guests—agents, publishers, other celebrity writers, the invited panel, and their agents and publishers.
The facts were beginning to add up. Roth had been invited but he was not going to appear in the most fulsome sense of that word. He was going to stay in the background where every writer, especially a celebrity writer, must remain most of the time if he is to continue writing. At least, that has been my impression over the years. Writers, unless they are performers, are ambivalent about publicity tours and readings. They/We would prefer to have a quiet evening with friends or to stay home and read and write. So any ambivalence on the part of the writer is understandable. And so it was announced that the panel would begin the evening by discussing Roth’s work, in his presence, which I thought strange, and then he would read from his memoir, “Patrimony.” There would be no Q&A. After a half-hour delayed start, the evening would remain short and Roth would be able to return home to read and write.
One of Philip Roth’s recent books is called “The Humbling.” It is a story of a man of the author’s age, an actor, who loses the ability to act. He cannot remember his lines or why he should say them, or what they mean. He retreats to his home in the woods and contemplates suicide. Unlike some of Roth’s earlier work, it is not at all funny. It’s about an artist who has lost himself and his audience. And in that long, narrow, stuffy room, Roth had unknowingly lost his audience, an audience of equally ambivalent and retiring fellow writers. He, or his publicity machine, had mistaken us for ordinary readers and we were not; we were fellow writers. Not celebrity writers but ordinary, plain, hard-working writers. We would have been interested in the challenges of an aging writer if Roth could have been persuaded to speak to this subject, among others. Whatever he chose to say, we would have listened. We would have been rapt. But Roth allowed himself to be handled in the way that politicians are handled, spun and, ultimately, silenced. It was a terrible shame and I was sorry for him, and for us. He's written a gorgeous new book--"Nemesis"-- and even that had been obliterated from the evening.