When Artists Retire

image courtesy of The Philip Roth Society

Last week, several American news outlets reported that novelist Philip Roth had written his last book.

Here is an excerpt from an article posted on Salon.com:

Roth said that at 74, realizing he was running out of years, he reread all his favorite novels, and then reread all his books in reverse chronological order. “I wanted to see if I had wasted my time writing,” he said. “And I thought it was rather successful. At the end of his life, the boxer Joe Louis said: ‘I did the best I could with what I had.’ This is exactly what I would say of my work: I did the best I could with what I had.

“And after that, I decided that I was done with fiction. I do not want to read, to write more,” he said. “I have dedicated my life to the novel: I studied, I taught, I wrote and I read. With the exclusion of almost everything else. Enough is enough! I no longer feel this fanaticism to write that I have experienced in my life.”

As an artist at the beginning of my career, Roth’s statements seem hard to believe. With more books to read than I can count, and story ideas that keep me awake at night, how could a lifetime be possibly long enough to read everything I want to read and write everything I want to write?

Roth’s statements bring to light a great debate or paradox for many artists: is being an artist a job or a calling?

When the artist devotes herself to a practice as throughly as Roth has, it’s understandable that art might become like any other career. Roth’s career mimicked the pattern of many other careers. He was “promoted” from unpublished to published and from debut author to seasoned author, and he received awards much like the ones handed out at company banquets and industry conferences (although arguably his awards were more prestigious “Salesman of the Year”). I would expect most people having accomplished the number of things Roth has accomplished in his lifetime would want to retire too.

But that would suggest the role of writer is comparable with a having a job (written derogatorily). The popular myth is that being an artist transcends the rote tasks of employment’s daily grind. Art is a calling–it can never be finished. If this is true, if we are to believe that Roth was “called” to write American Pastoral, how do we witness his retirement? Dare I ask, is he giving up?

The way I reconcile the contradiction between the job-like and the mythic qualities of writing is to remember an artist’s choices about their career are personal and should not be dictated by fans, agents, market research or pressure from publishing houses. Roth felt he wrote everything he wanted to and he is content with his body of work. Regardless of whether or not Roth’s work was “good” it was his, and he devoted his life to his craft. He also had the wisdom to know when he reached his limit.

I only hope at the end of my life I can look back with the same contentment and perspective on my own career. The question now is, will I spend my retirement lying on a beach, or will I die mid-sentence with my hands stiffening over my keyboard?

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