Today, if you can believe it, is the venerable Philip Roth’s 80th birthday. Considered by many to be the greatest American writer of our time, he is also notoriously cantankerous — he dislikes interviews, and when he grants them, he refuses to give an inch; he does his best to dissuade young writers from taking up the craft; he doesn’t care what you think. This is, obviously, sort of delightful. After the jump, on the occasion of his becoming an official octogenarian, ten of Philip Roth’s grumpiest moments.
“I don’t ask writers about their work habits. I really don’t care. Joyce Carol Oates says somewhere that when writers ask each other what time they start working and when they finish and how much time they take for lunch, they’re actually trying to find out, ‘Is he as crazy as I am?’ I don’t need that question answered.” — The Paris Review , 1984
“Yeah, this is great. But I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.” — Roth’s advice to a younger writer
“To become a celebrity is to become a brand name. There is Ivory Soap, Rice Krispies, and Philip Roth. Ivory is the soap that floats; Rice Krispies the breakfast cereal that goes snap-crackle-pop; Philip Roth the Jew who masturbates with a piece of liver.” — Esquire, 1981
“You asked if I thought my fiction had changed anything in the culture and the answer is no. Sure, there’s been some scandal, but people are scandalized all the time; it’s a way of life for them. It doesn’t mean a thing. If you ask if I want my fiction to change anything in the culture, the answer is still no. What I want is to possess my readers while they are reading my book — if I can, to possess them in ways that other writers don’t. Then let them return, just as they were, to a world where everybody else is working to change, persuade, tempt, and control them.” — The Paris Review , 1984
Roth: There once was this photographer from New York. “Smile,” she always said. “Smile!” I couldn’t stand her or the whole phenomenon. Why smile into a camera? It makes no human sense. So I got rid of both her and the smile.
Martin Krasnik: Do you ever smile at all?
Roth: Yes, when I’m hiding in a corner and no one sees it.
— as related in the Guardian
“I’m exactly the opposite of religious. I’m anti-religious. I find religious people hideous. I hate the religious lies. It’s all a big lie.” — as related in the Guardian
Tina Brown: You said in an interview that you don’t think novels are going to be read 25 years from now. Were you being provocative or do you believe that to be true?
Philip Roth: I was being optimistic about 25 years really. No, I think it’s going to be cultic. I think always people will be reading them, but it’ll be a small group of people — maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range… It’s the print. That’s the problem. It’s the book. It’s the object itself. To read a novel requires a certain kind of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks, you don’t read the novel really. So I think that that kind of concentration, and focus, and attentiveness, is hard to come by. It’s hard to find huge numbers of people, or large numbers of people or significant numbers of people who have those qualities.
— The Daily Beast , 2009
“I’m not good at finding ‘encouraging’ features in American culture. I doubt that aesthetic literacy has much of a future here.” — Observer, 2001
“I am Philip Roth. I had reason recently to read for the first time the Wikipedia entry discussing my novel ‘The Human Stain.’ The entry contains a serious misstatement that I would like to ask to have removed. This item entered Wikipedia not from the world of truthfulness but from the babble of literary gossip — there is no truth in it at all.” — from the wonderfully grumpy and hilarious “An Open Letter to Wikipedia”
“When you decide ‘to be a writer,’ you don’t have the faintest idea of what the work is like. When you begin, you write spontaneously out of your limited experience of both the unwritten world and the written world. You’re full of naïve exuberance. ‘I am a writer!’ Rather like the excitement of ‘I have a lover!’ But working at it nearly every day for fifty years – whether it is being the writer or being the lover – turns out to be an extremely taxing job and hardly the pleasantest of human activities.” — Le Monde , 2013