Philip Roth talks about writing and retiring


In today‘s New York Times.

“I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” He went on: “I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.”

Philip Roth is retiring

At 79, Roth apparently has had enough of writing novels. The Slate writer thinks this may explain his recent attempt to fix his Wikipedia page–it’s time to work on his legacy.

The recent news that he had finally agreed to work closely with a biographer also suggested that perhaps he saw the end of his career approaching. And his recent contretemps with Wikipedia further implied a focus on his legacy.

If this is true, I’m glad his last novel was Nemesis, which was great, rather than the one that preceded it, The Humbling, which was embarrassing.  It’s always good when people have the sense to bow out at, or at least near, the top of their game.  I’ve always liked John Updike, but I was unable to finish the last couple of novels he wrote; the times seemed to have passed him by.  Even Shakespeare seems to have gone on a bit too long; I wouldn’t regret it if Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen had never seen the light of day.

Maybe the best way to leave the stage belongs to Charles Dickens; drop dead with a murder mystery (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) half-finished and the killer unrevealed.  Which led to ongoing attempts to finish the novel, including this one:

The third attempt was perhaps the most unusual. In 1873, a young Vermont printer, Thomas James, published a version which he claimed had been literally ‘ghost-written’ by him channelling Dickens’ spirit. A sensation was created, with several critics, including Arthur Conan Doyle, a spiritualist himself, praising this version, calling it similar in style to Dickens’ work and for several decades the ‘James version’ of Edwin Drood was common in America. Other Drood scholars disagree. John C. Walters “dismiss[ed it] with contempt”, stating that the work “is self-condemned by its futility, illiteracy, and hideous American mannerisms; the mystery itself becomes a nightmare, and the solution only deepens the obscurity.”

I don’t think anyone would try to complete an unfinished Philip Roth novel.  And I certainly don’t think Roth’s ghost would help him.

Wikipedia standards and the Roth affair

Here we discuss Philip Roth’s open letter to The New Yorker to get Wikipedia to change the “Inspiration” section of its article on his novel The Human Stain.  For those of you who just can’t get enough of this story, here is a deep dive into the back and forth in the revision history of the article, where we see the editors actually adding more detail to the incorrect discussion of Anatole Broyard possibly being the basis for the novel’s main character.

The post clears up one point for me.  Roth couldn’t have just posted his “open letter” on his own blog and claimed it was a secondary source.  Wikipedia is wise to that one:

Anyone can create a website or pay to have a book published, then claim to be an expert in a certain field. For that reason self-published media—whether books, newsletters, personal websites, open wikis, blogs, personal pages on social networking sites, Internet forum postings, or tweets—are largely not acceptable. This includes any website whose content is largely user-generated, including the Internet Movie Database (IMDB),,, collaboratively created websites such as wikis, and so forth, with the exception of material on such sites that is labeled as originating from credentialed members of the sites’ editorial staff, rather than users.

So Roth had to transform himself into his own secondary source by getting his letter published in The New Yorker.  That worked.  (We’ll probably never know why Roth felt the need to go to these lengths to correct the article. Presumably he didn’t write letters to the editor complaining when all those reviews raised the possibility that the novel was based on Broyard. And the fact that the reviews did raise the possibility is sort of noteworthy in its own right–perhaps not about the novel itself, but about the context in which the novel was written.  That’s a point that the Lawyers, Guns & Money blogger raises at the end of his post.)

I’m OK with Wikipedia’s policy on secondary sources, although I haven’t thought deeply about it.  Crowd-sourcing content obviously has its limits, and Wikipedia obviously has had to figure out a way to avoid complete anarchy.  I’m not sure I could come up with a better solution than they have.

So where are we with my little Wikipedia problem?  Jeff has kindly fixed the error in the publication date for Marlborough Street, and the fix is still there a day later.  The article uses this site as its source, which also has the date wrong, so that’s the problem.  But then there are any number of other sites offering used copies for sale and listing the publication date as 1987.  Do they count, I wonder?

Philip Roth writes a letter to Wikipedia, and we should all read it

This is pretty funny, and a little sad.  Philip Roth came across an inaccuracy in the Wikipedia article about his novel The Human Stain.  The article stated that the novel was “allegedly based on the life of the writer Anatole Broyard.”  But it wasn’t.  Roth informed Wikipedia of the error, but the Wikipedia refused to make a change:

Yet when, through an official interlocutor, I recently petitioned Wikipedia to delete this misstatement, along with two others, my interlocutor was told by the “English Wikipedia Administrator”—in a letter dated August 25th and addressed to my interlocutor—that I, Roth, was not a credible source: “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work,” writes the Wikipedia Administrator—“but we require secondary sources.”

So he wrote an open letter to The New Yorker instead, giving the background of the novel, which is about a college professor who gets caught up in a political correctness scandal.

Anatole Broyard was a literary critic who never acknowledged that he was of African-American ancestry.  The main character of The Human Stain is a professor who never acknowledged his African-American ancestry.  So that’s where reviewers made the connection.  But Roth goes to great lengths to make the case that this connection isn’t correct. “Novel writing is for the novelist a game of let’s pretend,” he says.  He took a germ of an idea–a muddle-headed remark made in class by a friend of his at Princeton, and its consequences–and populated a novel from it.

The Human Stain is great, but I particularly admire the shorter novels he been writing lately.  The Humbling was too over-the-top with the standard Roth sexual fantasies for my taste (and that of most critics, I think).  But Nemesis, about an imagined polio outbreak in Newark in 1944, was powerful and moving.

But back to Wikipedia.  Its article about The Human Stain is now up to date, citing Roth’s explanation of the novel’s genesis.  They don’t waste any time!  And now I may be inspired to tackle an error in my brief and uninteresting Wikipedia writeup: it says Marlborough Street was published in 1975, but it was actually published in 1987; I still hadn’t learned how to write in 1975.  They’ve got secondary sources that also list the book as being published in 1975, so apparently they’re not going to take my word for it.  I have no idea where that date came from.  I wonder if they’ll accept this blog post as a source?  I suppose I could post a photo of the copyright page . . .