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October 05, 2002

Free Reads -- Philip Roth

Friedrich --

Working in and around the arts, you find yourself having to get past many sweet illusions. (It's either wise up, or go back to school for that business degree.) One of the first illusions I had to let go of, back when I was but a babe, was this: that fiction writers are smart.

It's such an easy assumption to make. School tends to leave us thinking that writers write because they're smart. And there's a perhaps-natural tendency to look at and handle a book and think, Gosh, there must be something special about the person behind it: s/he got published! Wow!

I was as prone to this delusion as anyone when, back in the early '80s, I attended a major international conference of writers. Award-winners from dozens of countries were present. There were panels, speeches, seminars. I ran around with pen and pad, interviewing whoever I could sink my claws into.

What a chance to learn and be enlightened, right? In fact, I'd seldom heard such inane nonsense spoken in my life. Writer after writer, many of them famous, got up to speak -- and delivered naive baloney. The average American burger-flipper has more horse-sense about how the world works, as well as more shrewdness about basic psychology.

Quel surprise: Fiction writers tend to be to hyper-reactive and over-imaginative, often to the point of near-hysteria. It's common for them to feel persecuted, unheeded, misunderstood. Their views of the world often reflect this; as political thinkers, they identify (ludicrously) with the oppressed and the unconscious. They're like children, forever looking for parents who'll take proper care of them. And, gollygosh, if life isn't fair it's because there are bad people (Americans almost certainly, and quite likely Republicans) out there!

My conclusion is that a gift for writing fiction has nothing whatever to do with the ability to reason and make sense of things. Instead, it's a talent, like a gift for singing, dancing, or throwing a football. (I'm deliberately side-stepping here any fancypants games along the lines of: but gee, isn't intelligence itself a kind of talent? And, gee, isn't an athlete's talent a kind of intelligence?...)

I've found that talent and intelligence are best thought of as two different things. It's possible to be very talented yet completely brainless; it's also possible to be very intelligent yet without talents (though, realistically speaking, we all seem to have some talent -- parenting, perhaps, or telling jokes, or taking care of animals. Or, in my case, setting the VCR). Having brains and artistic talent: now that's a nice, if unusual, combo. Add a little common sense into the mix, and you've found yourself a rarity indeed.

What brings these thoughts to mind is a piece in the Telegraph about Philip Roth, who has been doing some (eek) thinking about America and 9/11. He's certainly a very talented guy, and obviously one with ferocious powers of mental concentration. But he also seems to be someone whose reasoning gifts are -- to put it kindly -- perhaps best taken not all that seriously. The piece is readable here.

Sample passage:

Roth: "Language is always a lie; above all, public language. McCarthy used a certain language to hunt communists. That which was used against Clinton is a bit more sophisticated. As for Bush, it's ventriloquists who make him speak."

Hmm. We can't and shouldn't keep artists from talking about politics. But we should definitely make fun of them when they do. Either that, or just not pay much attention.



posted by Michael at October 5, 2002


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