On this snowy morning, rather than spend my time out frolicking with the Rescuepoo in the drifts (which I promise I’ll do in a few minutes, really, Dog… try and be patient!) I feel compelled to enter into the ridiculous fray surrounding what may be the most unlikely literary pairing I’ve heard in a long time — Elizabeth Gilbert and Philip Roth.
There’s a WONDERFUL essay in the New Yorker by Avi Steinberg, concerning the dust up, which you really should read if you’re interested in writing and/or writers at all. It is wise beyond it’s pages. I read it this morning and by, gosh, it got me thinking.
Steinberg tells us this literary kerfuffle began when author Julian Tepper wrote a piece in the Paris Review about an encounter he had with his literary hero, Philip Roth, in which Tepper presented him with a copy of his first novel, entitled “Balls”. Roth congratulated him and then advised him, for the sake of his sanity, to get out of the writing business as fast as he could.
“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.”
Professionally-upbeat author Elizabeth Gilbert took umbrage with this and wrote a piece declaring writing to be a “f*cking great job.” She goes on, and I quote Steinberg here, “This is a classified piece of information, she claims, kept secret by vain, jealous older writers.”
“Or maybe it’s just vanity that makes authors gripe so much about their ordeal. Maybe writers have simply come to believe themselves to be so very special, and their work so very important, that they can’t imagine anybody else capable of doing it: You, little one, could never possibly create what I have created, or withstand all that I have withstood, so you’d best not try at all.”
Let’s be clear — I’m a writer. It wouldn’t do anything else. I am not capable of doing anything else. I am driven, compelled and enslaved to writing. If you’ve read any of my work at all, you understand it is one of the things that keep me even modestly sane and gives meaning to my world. But — referring to Steinberg’s article — Talmudicly speaking, I’m with Roth.
I always tell my students — if you can NOT write, you should probably do that. Since the pay is generally appalling (and getting worse all the time), and the isolation, rejection and criticism soul-scalding, don’t do this unless it’s what you were created to do. The chances of you ending up with a best-selling juggernaut like Gilbert’s (and the subsequent lifestyle she enjoys) is virtually nil.
I want my students to succeed and go on to become well-published and satisfied with their work and their careers, but I’m not going to lie to them and tell them how pretty and sweet the writer’s life is, anymore than I’d say that to someone who wants to be a brain surgeon or a concert pianist. It’s not easy. It’s not the best f*cking job in the world. I’m going to tell my students the hard truth and hope they’ll stick with it, hope they’ll keep working, keep writing, even in the face of all that bad pay, isolation, rejection and criticism. If they are born to be writers (rather than people who simply write well but aren’t cut out for the psychosis-inducing roller-coaster that is publishing) they will accept all of the writer’s life, including its considerable shadow-side, which Gilbert seems to want to deny, and write anyway.
It’s in writing anyway, because you MUST, that the pearl resides — underneath the oyster slime.
“That’s the kind of a person it takes to be a writer: someone who’s zealous and ready to argue, someone who has Philip Roth tell him, “It’s torture, don’t do it,” and replies, “You had me at ‘torture.’ ” You don’t enter into it because it’s a great lifestyle decision—it isn’t—you do it because, for whatever reason, you believe in it, and you believe in it because, for whatever reason, you need to believe in it. Roth was messing with Tepper; he was testing his faith and strengthening it. He wanted the guy to earn the title: author of the novel ‘Balls.'”
And so, with a wink and a grin, I say, yes, you had me at ‘torture’.