image: Steve Blass, World Series 1971
HOW DOES A WRITER know when it is time to hang it up?
Last July, Philip Roth, the author of 26 novels and one collection of short stories, told a French interviewer that he had not written a word of fiction in three years and that he did not intend to write fiction again. Roth is 79. He told the French interviewer that he no longer felt “the fanaticism to write” that had driven him for close to six decades, and that he was “tired” of “all the work” that writing demanded. Not only would he no longer write fiction, he said, but he also would no longer read it. (Four months later, in an interview with The New York Times, Roth confessed to having recently read a novel by Louise Erdrich — under the covers, as it were — while adding that most of his reading now was in fact nonfiction.) He said he didn’t feel “any sadness” about his decision. When the French interviewer expressed dismay and wondered if Roth might not take up novel writing again, Roth said that if he were to write another book, it would “very probably be a failure,” and “Who needs to read another mediocre book?” Roth didn’t say how he would “fill the hours” (to use a phrase used mordantly by “the most famous literary ascetic in America,” Roth’s E.I. Lonoff in The Ghost Writer), other than to note that he would help his biographer, Blake Bailey, sort out the facts of his life. (Bailey is the author of a critically acclaimed biography of John Cheever, whom Roth refers to in the French interview as a friend.) It’s hard to imagine the retired Roth taking a cruise in the Caribbean, participating in the onboard karaoke nights — almost as hard as it is to imagine him tweeting — but it is possible to picture him watching sports on TV, especially baseball. In the early 1970s, he wrote a novel about baseball — he called it The Great American Novel, a title that is 95 percent ironic and five percent dead serious — and it is, among other things, the work of a baseball fan. “What,” asks the narrator of this novel, “are the consolations of philosophy or the affirmations of religion beside an afternoon’s rich meal of doubles, triples, and home runs?”
Watching baseball this fall, while I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, I asked myself the same thing. If you are the 61-year-old author of three quite minor league (and commercially unsuccessful) books of fiction and if over the past two or three years you have fielded something like 75 consecutive rejection notes and if, when you sit down at the desk in the morning, you do not detect any sign of the devotion to writing fiction that sustained you for so many years, is it time to try something else?
For much of October, I sat on the living room sofa with a jittery, middle-aged cat named Greenie (at ease only when asleep) and watched my favorite team, the San Francisco Giants, play the Cincinnati Reds and then the St. Louis Cardinals and then, in the World Series, the Detroit Tigers. Though I have never lived west of Iowa, I have been a Giants fan almost forever. In 1962, when I was 11, my parents took my sister and me on a tour of the West, which included a stay in San Francisco and two nights at Candlestick Park, where we saw Willie Mays and Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal, and where, ...read more