Why Writers Can't Retire, Despite Their Best Intentions

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As the year ends, commentator Ben Dolnick reflects on what he thinks is the most spurious bit of news from the world of American writers.


The literary world was abuzz this year with the runaway success of "Fifty Shades of Grey," and J.K. Rowling's book for grown-up muggles. But it was Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Philip Roth's retirement that got the attention of commentator Ben Dolnick.

BEN DOLNICK: This fall, in an interview with a French magazine, Philip Roth announced his retirement. "I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration," he explained. Instead, he's been entertaining friends, playing with his iPhone, and eating meals prepared by a personal chef.

Few writers have done more to earn their retirements, and I wish him well. But I also expect a new novel from him no later than, say, the fall of 2014. It isn't that I question the sincerity of his intention to retire. What I question is whether he - the part of him that gives interviews, anyway - really has the final say in the matter.

Writers are notoriously unreliable, when it comes to their future plans. Stephen King announced his retirement in 2002, and has since continued to publish like, well, Stephen King. Short story writer Alice Munro announced hers in 2006, a couple of collections ago. It isn't only on the page that writers tend to fictionalize. They aren't - I don't think - being deliberately deceptive. There are plenty of times in a typical writing day when retirement seems, even to someone much younger than 80, like the sweetest imaginable relief.

But fiction emanates from an organ every bit as mysterious, and as much beyond conscious control, as the liver. The actual work of being a writer - the generation of plots and characters, the resolving of tangled chapter transitions - goes on while you sleep or shower, or walk the dog. You might as well announce your retirement from metabolizing sugar.

If Roth does, in fact, reverse himself, he'll find a precedent in the life of his own character, Nathan Zuckerman. Almost 30 years ago, in the novel "The Anatomy Lesson," Roth imagined something very like his recent retirement. At the end of that book, Roth's alter ego, Zuckerman, decides that he's had it with being a writer. He's going to become a doctor instead. All this indispensable work to be done, he thinks - and he'd given his fanatical devotion to sitting with a typewriter, alone in a room. There were six Zuckerman books still to come.

SIEGEL: Writer Ben Dolnick - far from retirement; his most recent work of fiction is called "You Know Who You Are."

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