I’ve been reading Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth, curious to know more about this controversial writer. He’s been accused of being antisemitic, a misogynist, and worse. But he’s also an immensely talented writer who delves deeply not only into the darker side of humanity but also can do it with humor.
Of course, one of my main interests in reading this bio is to learn more about Roth the writer. How he went about composing his works and what were the seeds of his many novels. Like so many other writers, he drew extensively on his personal life, fictionalizing former lovers, wives, friends, family members, experiences, and so on. Perhaps if he were writing today, his writing might be categorized as autofiction.
He also spent hours at the typewriter each day, working arduously at his craft. And he loved to teach, not creative writing, but how to read literary fiction. He believed writers need to know how to read deeply and critically. By being able to analyze other writers’ works, they become better readers and editors of their own material. As a critic of other novelists, he was unflinching, as demanding of them as he was of himself.
There’s much talk today about beta readers and how important they are to writers. The same was true for Roth. He had five or six people whose literary judgement he trusted. They read early drafts of his work and gave honest feedback. His novels went through multiple rewrites before being submitted to the professional editors with whatever publishing house he was working with a the time who made further suggestions. He also had friends who were copyeditors that he worked with closely and influenced his works.
All of this is a reminder to we writers, in this era of rampant self-publishing of material that hasn’t been well edited, of the enormous effort and time it takes to successfully create our manuscripts. As I go through yet another review of my novel, Confessions of a Canadian Girl in Training, to be released October 2021, I’m grateful to my publishers who have pushed me to go further but also to the many beta readers who have helped me to improve the narrative. So, on this day following Independence Day, I want to shout out THANKS to those readers and to my dependence on them!