Almost back to back this morning, I heard the news that Philip Roth had just been awarded the Man Booker International prize and that one of the judges—author and publisher Carmen Callil—had withdrawn in protest. According to The Guardian, Callil said that Roth “goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.”
I think Philip Roth takes up more shelf space in my apartment than almost any other author. I have a complicated love for both him and his work that seems to mirror my feelings for Sinatra and Freud, except I never grow weary of Sinatra and Freud and never, ever feel the need to defend my complicated love.
With Roth, however, I am sometimes frustrated, even bored. I have, after reading some of his books, said things similar to Callil’s comments. How many times, Mr. Roth, must I read about the older intellectual in sexual thrall with the beautiful, brilliant young woman a fraction of his age?
There is a wonderful quote that I am going to butcher by a writer whom I can’t recall now. It says something to the effect of every writer has one story to tell and he tells it over and over. And I have to admit, it feels true to me. But maybe that’s the kind of writer I am drawn to. But the authors I love The other authors on my shelves that take up similar amounts of space are Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Ellroy, Salinger. And certainly the same could be said of them. The plots may change, the time period, the arc of the tale. But something at the core remains, some irresolvable issue or obsession that can’t help but sneak it.
I’m distinguishing here from authors who recycle plots, etc. Instead, I’m talking about recurring themes, dynamics, obsessions, fixations that seem to form the spine of many of their books and other times just seem to push their way in as if the writer can’t control it.
The risk of an artist returning to touchstones is an insularity of world which I sometimes find in Roth (that suffocating quality Callil cites does resonate with me; Roth’s Manhattan, for instance, seems trapped in amber at times). But when these authors discover a new way into their obsession, a new vantage point, or a new subject that may ultimately lead us back to their recurring story—it can be their greatest achievement.
Because, after all, we are drawn to these authors to begin with because something about their story feels like ours.
James M. Cain may have written a half-dozen books dealing with the unstoppable lure of sex and money and the dark corners it drops us down, but, as discussed here before, when he becomes fascinated with the restaurant business (Mildred Pierce), or insurance (Double Indemnity), or taps his own love of opera (Serenade), the tale is reinvigorated even as it may follow the same deep treads he’s set down before.
Roth’s fascination with the glove industry or diamond business have produced some of his most exquisite prose ever. The vitalizing energy of American Pastoral seems to come from him wanting to use his alter ego, Zuckerman, to tunnel us into a very un-Roth-like pair of characters, an all-American straight-arrow and his beauty queen wife and what happens when their lives unfurl. His hero, Swede Levov, simply wouldn’t do the things Zuckerman and so many of his other heroes would. As a result, everything changes, and yet feels too like we’re returning to many of his fascinations—American success models, the family romance, Jewish identity and Roth’s own, often-blinding nostalgia for post-WWII-pre-counterculture moment—but from a new place. Which changes everything for us. And it’s thrilling.
But I guess I’m not really writing this post to talk about Roth. I guess I’m wondering how universal this feels. Are all writers writing variations on the same story? (Story, not plot–though I know there are writers who do that too!). Is in fact what sparks writing is the desire to work through something? If so, it’s likely he or she doesn’t really want to work through it because then it would be over, and they don’t want it ever to be over.
For myself, I have trouble stepping back and looking at my books in concert. I don’t think I’d want to see what elements, obsessions keep returning across the books. Because once you see it, then what might happen? What would be left?