Did any of you see the New Yorker Page-Turner article posted yesterday Do Writers Really Retire? by Ian Crouch? I found it really well written especially since every time I started asking myself “but what about…?” he would answer me. The article was prompted by a PBS documentary on Philip Roth and of course, Roth’s announcement not long ago that he is retiring.
Do writers really retire? It’s a good question. There have been plenty of writers who have said they were retiring but then a year or two later are publishing a new book (Stephen King I’m looking at you). And of course there are writers who make no announcement but stop publishing books (Harper Lee). There are also writers who stop publishing because of illness (Gabriel Garcia Marquez). We usually think of writers writing until they die. I mean, when you are a writer, can you really just stop? It’s not as though writer is a normal sort of job like most of us have at an office or a factory or some other place of business. We, I, imagine writing as being a sort of job that infuses your life and is an integral part of who you are. Plus, it is something you do because you love it so much, because you can’t not do it. How do you retire from a job like that?
Maybe my view of what it is like to be a writer is incorrect? Maybe a person can retire from writing. But what does a retired writer spend his time doing? How does one turn off the habit? How does one not meet someone interesting and think, “She’ll make a perfect character in my new novel!” Or hear a great turn of phrase or interesting piece of conversation and not think “oh I’m going to use that in my novel!”
But Roth says he has retired. I, and I think many others, find it hard to believe. When I first heard the news I thought, yeah right. But maybe he really has stopped writing. Maybe the need to write has disappeared. Maybe he doesn’t feel like he has anything left to say. Maybe he is tired. Maybe all he needs is a long vacation, permission to relax for a bit. Maybe in six months he’ll get a great idea for a new novel and come out of retirement.
The only other jobs I can think of that we would be surprised about a retirement announcement would be an artist — painter, photographer, etc. There are lots of professions in which people work for a long time. Librarians are notorious for working well into their later years which makes it harder for us younger librarians to find jobs. But we expect that even librarians will retire eventually. So I guess, why not writers? Still seems an odd notion though. Maybe Roth is now a trendsetter.