Pity the Poor Tortured Writers?

In a very amusing piece  “Is Writing Torture?”  the New Yorker covers the recent dust-up over the travails of the writing life among three of the unlikeliest writers ever to engage in mutual conversation, let alone a serious discussion, among themselves about “writing:” the major American novelist Philip Roth, the rather sophomoric though financially successful diarist Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love), and a newcomer pipsqueak Tepper somebody who had the bad manners to shove his brand new opus-novel into Roth’s hands (much as a puppy would present maybe his first dead rabbit to his owner proudly) at a cunningly pre-arranged breakfast meeting with this reigning giant of American Letters.

You simply can’t beat this one for laughs. The brouhaha made it into the pages of the Paris Review Daily where Gilbert had the poor judgment and audacity to take issue with Roth’s advice to the pipsqueak: stop and get out of this hellish writing thing now while you can. Gilbert with one commercially successful non-fiction book under her belt, only a thimble-full of wit and understanding of the issue, and no evident familiarity with Roth’s work or stature in American literature whatsoever, cried “foul!” at the top of her heaving lungs that anyone would say that “writing” is tough work and pursuing it over a lifetime a very hard way to go if recognition, financial rewards and socializing are entered into the calculus of what makes a person happy and satisfied.

Reading about this fracas made me wonder if all three involved were not from entirely different planets and not only speaking different languages, but also talking about an entirely different endeavor than each of the others.

Let’s be plain. Roth writes literary novels and has received every literary and critical award imaginable umpteen times. He aims high with his work; he writes serious fiction for the ages about timeless incorrigible issues in the human condition. His goal is to create art, lasting in its significance, profound with meaning and resplendent with aesthetic value. I’m not sure what Gilbert’s goals are, but given her slim chronicle of a brief period in her relatively (versus Roth’s) short life, I would have to say they are quite in line with her talent and skill set; that is to say, quite modest. As for tipper Tepper, well, Tepper is a would be novelist on the make who was hoping for an endorsement or plug for his new book when, under pretense, he induced Roth to meet him for breakfast on that fateful morning in Manhattan.

Yeah, man, how cool it would be to have this universally revered titan of novelists put in a good word for his new book Balls! (Yes, his book is entitled Balls. Really.)

Tepper really blew it when, after receiving Roth’s unsolicited advice that he quit while he was ahead (instead of—boo hoo—giving him a blurb that he could race back to his publisher with), he blabbed, blubbered and wrote about his disappointment in his glancing and superficial encounter with Roth everywhere he could get a hearing or a link online.

And the strangest aspect of all of this mis-communication, to me anyway, is that had either Gilbert or Tepper been familiar with Roth and his work, they would not have taken his remark literally or at face value, for Roth’s subtly and irony are legendary and to understand what he meant in making that comment, it would have to be placed in the context of the setting, the situation and the rest of the conversation and take into account Tepper’s behavior and remarks during their meeting. But that received no attention at all in the re-telling by Tepper and Gilbert.

Well, folks, as they say in the writing trade (heh heh), “context is everything.” Woe to wannabes who don’t take the time to learn the ropes and do it right. There are no short cuts.

Anyway, the humor in all of this makes my head spin. Unbelievable. My God, what poor judgment! If Gilbert and Tepper were trying to make asses out of themselves to the literary establishment and discerning readers everywhere they couldn’t have done a better job! And what was Tepper thinking? Do you think Roth—or anyone interested in fine writing or decent behavior—would lift a finger to help this ill-mannered puppy or congratulate him on his first dead rabbit now?

About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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2 Responses to Pity the Poor Tortured Writers?

  1. L. Palmer says:

    That’s an amazing exchange. Roth has a point, and is being honest. Writing is not for the faint-hearted. I write because I live in my imagination and have to share the words. However, this idealism discounts the countless hours and pages I’ve written, the results of which are collecting dust. I’m roughly 75,000 words into my current draft of my current project, and have a pile of things I’ve cut out that is about 80,000 words. All of this is in pursuit of something great and worthwhile. I am not a great literary genius, and I can only imagine the heartache and toil Mr. Roth went through for his literary tomes.


  2. I couldn’t agree with you more. Hang in there, though. The process you describe is the mandatory process for writing well.


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