The Anatomy Lesson
Tough Guys Don’t Dance
Henry James said that no one could survive being an American success, and that was back in the age of innocence before they invented the book tour. James hadn’t been shuttled around the country from one broadcasting station to the next or lain on a bed in Washington, DC, and been interviewed, live, by a disc jockey in Washington State. The tribulations involved in achieving modern American literary success have grown in direct proportion to the publishers’ anxiety about protecting their investments. The better known the author, the larger the advance he commands, and the more frantic the promotion he is subjected to. Yet at the end, if a book sells 50,000 copies and edges onto the best-seller list, its author can console himself only with the thought that, although he may have been seen and heard by millions, he has been read, at best, by an average of one thousand people in each state of the Union.
To the writer this may be of no great importance since he submits to this trial by interview not, as Freud said, because “he longs to attain to honor, power, riches, fame, and the love of women,” but because he needs to sell enough copies of his last book in order to have the financial security to get on with the next. But the effect on his readership is something else: a commercially marketed author ceases to be an anonymous story-teller known only through what he writes; he becomes a face on TV or a voice from the speakers, a personality. And gradually, the audience comes to prefer the personality to the work because personalities are less demanding than art, and the sometimes scandalous lives of writers can be more diverting than the books they produce.
To complicate the issue, the direction of art in the second half of this century—from the existentialists and action painters through Lowell’s Life Studies and Plath’s last poems to the zanier reaches of confessional verse—has been to break down the barrier between the artist and the work. The two complement each other, and art becomes a fragment with a frame around it, a temporary clearing of calm and order that emerges from the chaos of life and then is swallowed up in it again. Caught between an aesthetic theory that insists on the indivisibility of art and life and marketing techniques that peddle the author as a property in his own right, fewer and fewer readers, one suspects, bother to distinguish fantasy from truth. In the confusion, Roth comes to equal Portnoy, Heller, Yossarian, and Mailer is a literary creation in his own right.
This is an ironic fate for Philip Roth, since he is among the most “literary” of modern American novelists. He is a graduate of the Arnoldian Fifties when literature was considered the supreme discipline for aspiring young moralists—more serious than politics, more subtle than religion. His idols are the monks of fiction—Flaubert, Kafka, Babel …