Philip Roth, our Priapic Piñata, is now Immortal

“Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this life, and that’s it.”

–Philip Roth

A monomaniac quest to explore and try and perfect his art. I’ve always admired Roth more as a craftsman, the day-in, day-out (literally, until he stopped) work of writing. He was fortunate to discover his passion and talent early on, but disciplined –to the point of obsession– …in harnessing, interrogating, following it where it led him, and vice versa. A consummate pro, a total artist. I don’t emulate or necessarily envy this all-or-nothing descent into the self (Roth was always a paradox, where he was at once an utter onanist, artistically, but he always did the work, attempting to make artifice out of that self-absorption…it takes more than ego or solipsism to, even or especially after earning acclaim, get up every day and do the work), but I can stand in awe of the consistency, the production, the integrity.

The only other living author who seems to have produced at such a consistent rate, more out of compulsion and the kind of cultivated, monastic lifestyle (practice makes perfect, etc.) is Stephen King, whose epic drive and stamina I’ve celebrated accordingly.

Look: most writers don’t enter into the act of serious writing if they hope to find acclaim or fortune. Or else, they’re disabused of those naïve illusions in short order. Most give up; most weren’t talented or disciplined enough. (One thing you can say even for the worst –and inevitably most successful– hacks: they are still putting in the time; even if the results are execrable, you don’t wish productivity into existence, and I’m not certain there’s another vocation that involves more wishing and less doing.) So when we think about the exceedingly rare individuals who are able to keep going, find an audience, even some measure of approbation, it’s a selective group, to say the least. And the ones, like Roth and King, who reach the pinnacle of their profession (the former critically, the latter commercially), who still keep going, and not just in an admirably 9 to 5 type fashion, but at the expense of virtually anything else, including relationships and simple pleasures, like breakfast or a richly-deserved trip the fucking museum, we have our avatars and heroes, even if their example is impossible to imitate, much less emulate.

I’ve taken my obligatory poke at the priapic piñata that was Roth, but I confess to being embarrassingly ill-read: he’s been on my semi-short list of serious writers that warrant a deep dive (and a much deeper dive than I’ve been able or willing to take). And here, on the heels of a similar epiphany regarding the recently-departed Tom Wolfe, I need to free up more unavailable time to pay respects, learn a thing or three, and celebrate yet another icon whose like we won’t see again anytime soon.

Philip Roth’s death (and well-lived artistic life) remind me there’s much more reading, and writing, to do.

Full respect and the hope that he rests, in peace.

Executive Director, 1455, @1455LitArts. Avoiding quiet desperation by any means necessary http://seanmurphy.net

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