The much-publicized announcement by Philip Roth via an interview with the BBC that he will retire from both public appearances and the written word raises the interesting question of whether writers can actually do that? Roth already signed off the duties of actual writing some time earlier in 2012, and this latest declaration apparently precludes further public statements of any kind.
“This is my last appearance on television, absolutely my last appearance on stage anywhere,” Roth reportedly said to BBC presenter Alan Yentob. “I had reached the end. There was nothing more for me to write about.” And Philip Roth can probably say that with as much justification as any living author, having written 27 novels in the course of his career, including Portnoy’s Complaint and The Great American Novel, and two volumes of non-fiction, as well as extensive essays and journalism. His list of awards is intimidatingly long. He even has a society dedicated to him. So if he says he no longer has anything to say, then who should gainsay him?
Except, to take on that proposition, by saying he has nothing more to say, Roth has already said something more. Or rather, he’s said that a writer can reach a point where he has nothing more to contribute through any utterance. That’s a legitimate position, but one that plenty of other writers have found fault with. Roth can point to William Shakespeare as one great exemplar of a writer who did exactly that, with an honorable retirement to Stratford and virtual silence in the last three years of his life. UK critic and author Michael Holroyd was just one of many to argue against the proposition, though. Mark Doty declared “I don’t believe it; what else would one do to make any little bit of sense out of the world?” And Peter Carey asked of Roth, “Why should he escape?”
Chances are he won’t really. For every instance of a writer who ostensibly retires, there are dozens of others who go on writing until they, literally, drop. From Walter Scott, churning out works to pay off his debts, to Mór Jókai, producing late works of steadily diminishing quality, in some cases there are signs they were producing too much. But very few seemed actually ready to kick the habit. And as recently as September 2012, Roth was taking to print at length in The New Yorker to argue with the content of his Wikipedia entry. Will he really keep quiet if another such incident occurs?
Then there are deathbed statements of writers. Whether it’s Goethe asking for “more light,” or James Joyce asking “Does no one understand?”, their last words are recorded and revered as much as any they ever wrote down, and often taken as symptomatic or diagnostic of their life or character. When Roth finally passes away after however many more years than his already venerable 81, it’s hard to imagine that his last words, whatever they are, will not be recorded too.
Once you’re in print, there is no repeal. You will always be judged by what you say or write. Even to the very end. It never goes away. Deal with it.