Philip Roth, the splendid, New Jersey-born, ostensibly retired American novelist, will be eighty next week, and his home town of Newark is turning out to celebrate. Or, at least, there will be literary presentations, a bus tour of Roth-honored locations (although the site of the burlesque house where the young Alexander Portnoy sat in panicky awe alongside his graying, grim-faced companions seems, for some reason, not to be on the itinerary), an “invitation only” party at the Newark Museum, and a show of Roth-related photographs at the Newark Public Library. Those with shining memories of Roth’s first book, the wonderful story collection “Goodbye, Columbus,” published more than half a century ago, will recall that he already spoke back then of having a “deep knowledge of Newark, an attachment so rooted that it could not help but branch out into affection.” That Newark’s affection for him has become, despite the occasional shocks he has offered its citizens, deep enough to be reciprocated by its library seems like the right kind of homage for a local literary hero. (One recalls as well the insistence of that pitiful pedant and quiz-show loser Alvin Pepler, in “Zuckerman Unbound,” that Nathan Zuckerman, the Roth doppelgänger, should congratulate himself on being Newark’s finest author—alongside, Pepler quickly adds, Stephen Crane, with Mary Mapes Dodge, who wrote “Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates,” coming in a distant third.)
Roth’s announced retirement has added a touch of the elegiac to what would be a big birthday in any case, although every Roth lover has to ask if he really has retired. There is a small, sneaky, admiring notion that the retirement, though hardly a put-on, is likely to become an irresistible occasion for one last Möbius strip of fictional-confessional construction, in which Zuckerman may be found creating a novelist, call him Isaac Kaplan, who, at the age of eighty, has decided to stop writing, only to find that this has increased, rather than limited, his fame: “To stop writing had turned out to be the one final way to make his writing matter! Absence had provided a keener presence than the past ten years of books, Isaac thought, as well as a rush of affection and regard that seemed, in its way, as disquieting as the old hostility had ever been.” The Roth sound is there, in our heads. He was “serious in the fifties,” to use his own coinage, satiric in the sixties, sober in the seventies, sane in the eighties, and became—with the amazing sequence of big late novels that commenced with “Sabbath’s Theater”—a kind of sage in the nineties and right into our confused new century.
Happy as the birthday promises to be, it is hard not to worry that it doubles as a bon voyage party for the American writer’s occupation itself. The future of writing in America—or, at least, the future of making a living by writing—seems in doubt as rarely before. Thanks to the Internet, the disproportion between writerly supply and demand, always tricky, has tipped: anyone can write, and everyone does, and beginners are expected to be the last pure philanthropists, giving it all away for the naches. It has never been easier to be a writer; and it has never been harder to be a professional writer. The strange anatomy of the new literary manners has yet to be anatomized: the vast schools of tweets feeding on the giant whales of a few big books, the literary ecology of the very big, the very small, and the sudden vertiginous whoosh; the blog that becomes a book; the writer torn to pieces by his former Internet fans, which makes one the other.
It is always difficult to be an artist, devoted to seeing and making, in a commercial society devoted to showing and spending. If many writers would, with justice, rather have fewer parties for the big fish and more pay for the small fry, well, Dr. Johnson said, rightly, that anyone who decides to write something believes herself to be wiser or wittier than the rest of mankind, and that it is up to the rest of mankind to decide if she is. For the moment, it’s up to the readers, like the ones on the Newark bus tour, with their copies of “American Pastoral” thrown open to the local passages, to decide who gets the parties. Since all writers are, in the first instance, readers, too, even the most anxious among them have to cheer when a small city throws a big party for one of the best. ♦