THE VYING ANIMAL
Literary careerism and the life of Philip Roth
Note: Currently Bookforum’s archive is down. I am told by people at Artforum that it’s a temporary hardware issue, and it will soon be restored. Nonetheless, it’s disturbing and points up the fragility of any published writing’s digital existence. Fragile as in: it could be deleted in an instant at any time. My editor and I came across the downed archive while revising an essay I have coming soon for a newspaper that touches on Bookforum’s demise. Below is one of my favorite pieces I wrote for Bookforum, on a biography of Philip Roth. (It was written and published before a scandal emerged around the biographer.) I am at work on a new post that should go out tomorrow with some thoughts on my friend Nathan Heller’s New Yorker story on the end of the English major. Too many things ending all at once!
MORE THAN REALISM OR ITS RIVALS, the dominant literary style in America is careerism. This is neither a judgment nor a slur. For decades it has simply been the case that novelists, story writers, even poets have had to devote themselves to managing their careers as much as to writing their books. Institutional jockeying, posturing in profiles and Q&As, roving in-person readership cultivation, social-media fan-mongering, coming off as a good literary citizen among one’s peers—some balance of these elements is now part of every young author’s life. It’s a matter of necessity and survival, above and beyond the usual dealings with editors, agents, and Hollywood big shots. The ways writers used to mythologize themselves have either expired or been discarded as toxic. In the old gallery there were patrician men of letters (Howells, Eliot), abolitionists (Stowe), adventurers (Melville, London, Hemingway), madmen (Poe), shamans (Whitman), aristocrat expatriates (James), bohemian expatriates (Stein, Baldwin, Bishop), playboy expatriates (Fitzgerald), denizens of café society (Wharton), romantic provincials (Cather, Thomas Wolfe), small-town chroniclers (Anderson), country squires (Faulkner), suburban squires (Cheever, Updike), vagabonds (Algren), cranks (Pound), drunks (West, Agee, Berryman), dandies (Capote), decadents (Barnes), butterfly-chasing foreigners (Nabokov), cracked aristocrats (Lowell), recluses of uncertain eccentricity (Salinger, Pynchon, DeLillo), committed radicals (Steinbeck, Rexroth, Wright, Hammett, Hellman, Paley), disabused radicals (Ellison, Mary McCarthy), radicals turned celebrities (Mailer, Sontag), activist women of letters (Morrison), alienated children of immigrants (Bellow), faux patrician men of letters (Tom Wolfe), neo-cowboys (Cormac McCarthy), hipsters (Kerouac), junkies (Burroughs), and hippies (Ginsberg). In the end there is only the careerist, the professional writer who is first, last, and only a professional writer. The original and so far ultimate careerist in American literature was Philip Roth.