I was going to talk about this in the comments of the last post, where reader Mark was talking about the consistent quality and prolificity of Philip Roth's work, but thought it was worth a post of its own. I believe the reason Roth can be so good, and produce good work so often, is simple. It's the same reason Toni Morrison gave this past week at Cornell, when an audience member at her talk asked how she could be so productive, even while being an editor and teacher, as she has often been.
I don't really consider Morrison especially prolific, but I certainly do think she produces work of great worth. And her answer was, "Because I don't do anything else. I read books, I teach books, and I write books. That's it." She said that she doesn't go on vacations, really, or "go skiing." She just lives the work. As far as I know, so does Roth--he lives in a small town in, I believe, Connecticut, doesn't indulge in many extraliterary pursuits, and just goes at it like a madman.
I'm not like that. I'm too easily distracted. Some of my distractions, particularly the creative ones, I find useful to my writing, but others of them (posting on internet forums, re-watching the entire "Mr. Show" DVD set, drinking bourbon) are of no particular value other than pleasure. I do think I need to cut down on these things--most of us do, really. (Though it's OK to watch "Druggachusetts" one more time, you have my permission.)
The other night, as I was trying to digest her quite excellent comments on my novel manuscript, Rhian told me that I don't take myself, and my work, seriously enough. If it isn't good enough, that's probably why. I'll never be the artists Roth and Morrison are, but if I want to be more like them, perhaps I should listen to her.
But what do you think? How much seriousness can a writer take? Is the kind of singleness of purpose necessary to create Nobel-worthy work (and where, might I ask, is Roth's Nobel?) even achievable by any but a handful of people? For the rest of us, I'd imagine there is a point beyond which we begin to get diminishing returns--the work will be fully realized, but the joy will have gone out of it.
I think I have a ways to go before I'm there, though, and I really ought to do as the Mrs. says. Meanwhile, enjoy that photo there--it's Toni Morrison talking with my colleagues Ken McClane and Margo Crawford. Morrison turns out to be an incredibly cool lady, as well as an artist of the first rank, and it was a major, major pleasure to get to meet her. (Rhian can tell you about nearly knocking her flat in the cloak room after the reading.)