The recent news that iconic novelist Philip Roth has stopped writing fiction knocked me back half a lifetime, to the day I took my seat in the Iowa Writers Fiction Workshop and watched starry-eyed as a tall, intense young man entered the classroom, snapped the creases of his chinos and settled himself on the edge of the instructor's desk. "I'm Philip Roth," he announced.
Of that time in his career, Roth would recall how, "still in my twenties, I imagined fiction to be something like a religious calling, and literature a kind of sacrament." And through two semesters, he changed my life not only as a career writer, but even more so as a reader of fiction. He instilled in my worshipful mind that fiction was the inner light. Over the years, he would confirm it for me in an avalanche of luminous novels and stories.
So it was bad enough when Roth told a London newspaper in 2011 that he had stopped reading fiction in favor of "other things." He was asked why. His quoted answer: "I don't know. I wised up."
The story rattled the literary world, fueling the endless debate over fiction's value in modern times. I was more than rattled then, and now, with Roth's declaration to a French magazine that he was through writing the stuff as well, I am staggered, staggered that he has thrown in the towel.
Unfair as it might be, given Roth's monumental contributions to the genre and his well-earned right to say, "It's enough!," I can't help feeling as if the Master – the patron saint of fiction for two generations – has let me down. Or that he's about to crack a grin in that long face and say, "Just kidding!"
As a Chicagoan, I am awash in historic letdowns, and I got to thinking about the kid who reportedly bawled, "Say it ain't so, Joe!" after baseball star Shoeless Joe Jackson of the White Sox was accused of letting down teammates and fans by taking part in a World Series fix. And now I have to deal with fiction's premier slugger, my old coach, throwing down his glove.
I recalled playing softball with Roth in weekend rivalries between the Iowa Fiction and Poetry Workshops. Big Phil was a solid batter, slapping line drives, chugging the bases, and in doing so, striking a blow for fiction! Oh why, Phil, in your Hall-of-Fame years, did you have to squirt that chaw of ornery juice over the time-honored telling of tales?
Fiction. I was a believer in its unique, often-realized potential to express the human condition and help us find our own way through it; to report the infinitely varied news of the heart – the news that stays news, as they say; to deliver illuminations and pleasures available only in the unbounded reaches of the imagination.
I still believe. As close as I am to Roth in decades, I am still finding that inner light and joy in the fiction I've been savoring, including the oeuvre of Philip Roth.
Of course the man is entitled to rest on his laurels, to savor, as he turns 80, the pleasures of the world outside the claustrophobic writer's lair. As for fiction's relevance, while satisfied that his works have been of value, he has famously argued that true events mock the inventions of most modern novelists. (Just look at the day's headlines.)
But, Phil, more meaningful to me is what you said when you were batting out mid-career masterpieces. You wrote about the authenticity created by imagination when it is "so relentless and thoroughgoing that it is able to convert into its own nonconvertible currency whatever the author has absorbed through reading, thinking, and 'raw experience.'"
Such currency, the unique payoff of good fiction, is one I've long stood by as every other currency seems to be flying south. But now, as I reach for a novel or put hand to story, I'm starting to feel like the dupe of some Ponzi scheme. Has the imagination, too, become so devalued as to be worthless?
Oh, say it ain't so, Phil!
Arthur Plotnik's works include two Book-of-the-Month-Club selections and his latest of eight books, "The Elements of Expression" (revised), plus essays, fiction, and poetry.