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Celebrity Writers

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. Read More 
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Google Me

Every once in a while, I Google myself to find out if a person or institution has stolen my work. And every once in a while, I have to report a theft of my intellectual and creative property to the legal department at the Author’s Guild who are tireless in their pursuit of the perpetrators. Given the inter-stellar reach of the internet, however, such theft is not that common or obvious—at least to me. I might find more violations of copyright if I probed deeper into the depths of Google, but I don’t because, in many respects, I’m happy that Google scans my work. Even some blog entries are scanned. And why shouldn’t I be pleased that my blog has readers? I am pleased; I just don’t want my entries to be stolen.

I am always astounded at how fast a piece of published writing goes up onto Google and also how many other women with my name exist, have died, or have a lubricious past. This morning I found a Ziegfeld Follies girl with my name—how dare she—who danced and posed “all wet” in the 1920s. Here’s the link: http://ohshitbacon.tumblr.com/ “Why are you all wet, baby?” the caption reads.

I know that my students Google Me before they decide to take my class though they rarely confess to their sleuthing. Occasionally they let slip a fact—my age, experience, or aching back for example—which they could not have known unless they’d Googled Me, read my blog, or have a friend who has taken my class. I don’t mind any of this, mostly because I can’t do anything about it, and because, as a University Adjunct Associate Professor listed on the University Website hyper-linked to Google, I am a public person. Not famous, but public. In fact, we all are these days—public persons I mean. To what extent we can maintain our privacy remains the challenging issue in the 21st century electronic world, along with copyright, theft, and our sense of humor when we are exposed as “all wet.”

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Rhythms & Perseverance

It’s been a month since I wrote a blog because I have been very busy at the computer every day working on the revision of my book. I had a routine: three to four hours of work in the morning, exercise, or physical therapy, or the chiropractor mid-day, check my email one more time, then shut down the computer for the day. In that way, I was not tempted to sit again for long periods. Even with this half-time schedule, I finished the book.

Now, it’s done, I am waiting for a reply, and refueling. I don’t know yet what my next big project will be and it doesn’t matter. I’m tidying my files, catching up with friends & family, taking long walks, swimming, continuing to heal my back, going to museums, reading a lot, and getting to know my new students. When the editorial notes come in on my draft, I will have a new project going—probably a short one—and I’ll be rested enough to get back to work on the book.

I have a cousin, an artist, who disappears when she is immersed in a project. She doesn’t answer the phone or emails, she doesn’t socialize. She hunkers down and works. Then she surfaces again and reconnects with the material world around her. She works in spurts; the rest of the time she is mulching, storing up ideas, collecting images, traveling and spoiling her grandchildren.

Every artist and writer finds his or her own rhythm and sometimes, because of circumstance, this rhythm may change—because it has to. Some writers who live in the country work in their garden or go for a swim every day. Some work six days a week throughout the year, others only in the mornings. It doesn’t matter how we organize our creative lives so long as we persevere.

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