Since Philip Roth died this week, I decided to get down one of my copies of his work and give it a read. Roth is one of those authors whose work I know intellectually I am supposed to like and admire and aspire to be more like, but…I read his first novel several years ago, Letting Go. I was having another one of those periods where I realized that maybe I needed to not focus on reading so much crime fiction and needed to expand my mind more, read more critically acclaimed literary authors. I go through these phases periodically; I remember this particular phase not only included Roth but also William Styron’s Set This House on Fire, Faulkner’s The Reivers, something by Jonathan Franzen, and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. As always, I appreciated some of the books and disliked others. My primary takeaway from the Roth, since he is the subject of this paragraph, was this is really well-written but I neither like nor care about any of these characters. The characters were richly drawn, almost intricately so; which is no small accomplishment, but the more I got to know them, the less I liked them and the less I cared about them. Even as I type this I realize how important characters are to my enjoyment of anything; short story, movie, novel, television show. I have to care, or why bother? I got the sense that as I read Roth didn’t much like the characters he was writing about either, which I don’t understand. Perhaps this is why I am not a Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award winner; I cannot write about characters I don’t care about, and I don’t want to watch or read the same.
Why would I invest hours of my time with characters I don’t like when I wouldn’t spend time with them if they were real?
As I said to begin with, I never read Roth again–I tried reading The Plot Against America, but it lost my interest several chapters in; I do intend to try again–but I do have copies of some of his novels. The one I am going to try to read is When She Was Good. I’ve heard Laura Lippman, one of my favorite writers and intellects, discuss how much she admires Roth while being conflicted about his work; her novel with a similar title, And When She Was Good, is one of my favorite novels of hers. It’s also relatively short–from the looks of things, Letting Go may have been his longest novel–so I will be giving him another shot over the course of this weekend.
So, yesterday on my first day of vacation, I spent the day organizing and cleaning primarily, but I also did some work; I worked on the opening of my short story “A Holler Full of Kudzu,” which, I fear, might actually wind up being a novel; but I am going to continue working on it as a short story in the meantime, I also went to meet a writer friend in town for a few days for drinks at the Saint Hotel bar, which is becoming my go-to. It was fun to talk about writing and laugh about the nonsensical nature of this business with her; one of the best things about being a writer is being able to connect with other writers and in hearing other people are going through the same things.
It really is lovely.
I took the streetcar down there and back, and lugged the Roth with me to start reading. He really is a great writer; I’ve only managed the first chapter and it’s so well-written. I’ll be taking it with me to the Honda dealer today for the car’s oil change, and so I am hopeful the quality will continue; I think it will. I just hope the characters are likable, or at least relatable in some way.
After I finish with the oil change, I’m going to grab lunch over there and then do some errands, and then it’s home to get to work. I have some news brewing, and can’t wait to share it with you, Constant Reader! But until it’s all carved into stone…must say nothing.