Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Solving the Problems

In the course of writing my last post, I was reminded of an interview with Philip Roth that appeared in the Guardian four years ago, in which Roth said the following:
My interest is in solving the problems presented by writing a book. That's what stops my brain spinning like a car wheel in the snow, obsessing about nothing. Some people do crossword puzzles to satisfy their need to keep the mind engaged. For me, the absolutely demanding mental test is the desire to get the work right. The crude cliché is that the writer is solving the problem of his life in his books. Not at all. What he's doing is taking something that interests him in life and then solving the problem of the book - which is, How do you write about this? The engagement is with the problem that the book raises, not with the problems you borrow from living. Those aren't solved, they are forgotten in the gigantic problem of finding a way of writing about them.


Lloyd Mintern said...

Hurrah! This quote from Phillip Roth helps me understand why I react so negatively to his books. I find reading Roth actually painful, and embarrassing. He seems a defiantly bad writer, who precisely manages to only mess up up his obviously real life subjects; and here he is confessing to a fatuous procedure--that couldn't possibly be an honest explanation.

Just my honest opinion. Now I will duck.

Richard said...


I like Roth. At times, I admit, his writing has caused me some pain, but I still sense a real writer at work, and I keep returning to him even when I've been disappointed or annoyed.

John Self said...

I'll stand up for Roth. "A real writer at work" sums him up perfectly. His comment about the car wheel in the snow reminds me of his character E.I. Lonoff in The Ghost Writer:

"I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning. And if I knock off from this routine for as long as a day, I’m frantic with boredom and a sense of waste."

I'm troubled not by Roth's writing (though it's true his earlier books, like The Professor of Desire, have given me less pleasure than his mid- to late-period stuff) but by the interviews that appear with him around publication time - which as we know, is more and more frequent as the car wheen spins faster and faster. The likes of Mark Lawson and Philip Dodd interviewing him on BBC Radio seem entirely unequipped to deal with a writer of Roth's ability and intelligence, and I long for someone to just let him interview himself or talk on the topic of his choosing instead of answering all the pre-prepared crib-sheet questions.

Exceptions to this are the excellent interview (more a chat) that appeared with him by Hermione Lee in the Observer last year for publication of Exit Ghost - Lee is to be his biographer when the time comes - and the Paris Review interview collected in Reading Myself and Others.