The Ghost Writer

Philip Roth
Ballantine Books, 1979

50696The Ghost Writer is a handy little primer for an aspiring literary writer. After following the young, on-the-cusp, nationally renowned writer Nathan Zuckerman through twenty-four hours of visiting his literary idol, E.I. Lonoff, there should be a quiz.

1. Are you up to the moral character of Lonoff who can turn down a National Book Award so he doesn’t feel the pressure of the public to write what is popular?

2. Do you have enough “strong opinions” to get in a word edgewise with the “terrifying intellectual personalities” that will tear your work and you apart?

3. Are you able to marry a person who affords you a comfortable life in a rural setting with a suitable demographic address while you are an underpaid academic with time on your hands?

4. Would it matter if said spouse went crazy with jealousy (of nubile students, admirers), fear (of your obsessive need for quiet and routine), and boredom (of your boring personality that refuses a social life)?

5. Are you ready to relinquish all familial love of extended family due to what you have written?

6. Like Zuckerman, can you also meet a stranger and conjure an interesting background that brings an icon like Anne Frank to life in the beautiful woman sitting next to you for fresh writing fodder?

I think six questions are enough. Two hundred twenty-two pages were enough to make the issues pointed and impossible to ignore in the literary writer’s life. After witnessing the fifty-five years of Lonoff’s life what will the young Zuckerman do?

One thing I think could be done with this book is shorten a few of the sentences. The longest one I counted was one hundred twenty-two words. I felt like I was with a friend who hadn’t eaten all day and after a gin and tonic has a mouth racing a freight train, which may be the desired effect and can feel pretty good.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Roth and it reminded me of the pre-computer days of contemporary writing. Roth came on the scene in 1959 with the made-to-move Goodbye Columbus and continued with shelves of bestsellers. What is common in his books, as it was at the time, is the strength of Jewish culture in literary writing. Now there are so many more genres and popular niches that have joined in that reading Roth was surprisingly nostalgic to my days of restricted literary introduction.

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4 Responses to The Ghost Writer

  1. Bumba says:

    If you want a full dose of Philip Roth and long sentences try his Great American Novel, which opens with an alliterative ramble by Word Smith the great sportswriter and Roth’s narrator, who writes the GAN about baseball of course (and the great baseball conspiracy that has robbed America etc etc.) I thought that book was a brilliant effort, and some of his shorter novels were great too. His later stuff seems to be all about Roth, which could describe his early work too. I always liked his writing a lot.

  2. Thanks, I’ll look for the book. Lately I’ve been reading older books because newer ones seem more like marketing and the author trying to be famous. It’s not always true, I know, but I think most writing is about the writer one way or another.

  3. I love these points, especially the one about being able to marry someone who can keep you up.

  4. rebecca says:

    I like that, too. It’s both funny and true. On 60 Minutes last night they interviewed CEO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, and she said the same thing, but her connotation was much more positive.

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