Philip Roth has retired and while Dwight Allen never actually says so in his thoughtful essay published this past week in the L.A. Review of Books, we all know the celebrated author’s decision to pack it in has as much to do with the internet’s fracturing of what’s left of our literary culture, as it does with age, or Roth deciding he has no more stories to tell [And yes, we are aware of the irony of this point being raised on a website.]. The question can never now be far from the thoughts of any serious writer: “What, anymore, is the point?” Maybe Roth has the right idea. In any case, his retirement is the catalyst for Allen’s exploration of his own devotion to his literary career and whether or not it makes sense to keep writing.
When I read last fall that Roth had decided to stop writing fiction, I thought it was an entirely sensible, even brave, decision. I had thought that his novels of the last decade were nowhere near as good as so many of those that had preceded them, and his interview with the French magazine suggested he knew that was so. But what clearly mattered most in his decision was that he no longer felt the need (or fanatical desire) to write fiction. Graham Greene, who wrote about faith and doubt and self-betrayal as deeply as any novelist of the 20th century, said, “The creative act seems to remain a function of the religious mind.” Roth wasn’t going to try to fake it; if you are serious, you can’t fake devotion.