At 80, author Philip Roth is at peace with his decision to stop writing

Pulitizer Prize- and National Book Award-winning novelist Philip Roth being interviewed in his Manhattan apartment for American Masters program, ‘Philip Roth: Unmasked.’ Photo: François Reumont

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Philip Roth, one of the world’s most acclaimed living Jewish authors, is shown in a new PBS “American Masters” biography to be at peace with his recent decision to give up writing after a remarkable and often controversial career.  The documentary, “Philip Roth Unmasked” will air March 29, 10 days after his 80th birthday.

The film, written and directed by William Karel and Livia Manera, was largely made before Roth officially announced he was going to stop writing.  Even so, there are hints of his readiness to do so throughout the “American Masters” piece.


This PBS film is just one of many works and events that will celebrate milestones in Roth’s life. Blake Bailey, author of an acclaimed biography on John Cheever, is at work on the definitive biography of Roth, who bases much of his fiction on his childhood and youth in the secure middle class Newark suburb of Weequahic, N.J.  

In addition, the city of Newark has put together a bus tour called “Philip Roth’s Newark,” where for $35 participants will be taken to places noted in many of Roth’s books. The author is best known for his acclaimed 1959 debut novella “Goodbye Columbus” as well as his third novel, “Portnoy’s Complaint,” in 1969, which made headlines at the time for its explicit discussion of masturbation and other “taboo” sexual subjects. More recent works include “Exit Ghost,” “The Humbling” and “Nemesis,” all of which are more somber and reflective in tone, and deal with illness, decline and mortality.

Roth has told interviewers that he does not regret his decision to quit writing and is actually surprised at how easy it has been for him to give it up.  He is quoted by George Robinson in The Jewish Week as saying, “Between books it’s easy to think you can’t do it again,” adding, “I’m not worried.  I’m sad . . . The time is running out and I can’t do anything about it.”

In the course of his long writing career, Roth has insisted that his protagonists, including Alexander Portnoy, Nathan Zuckerman, Peter Tarnopol, David Zuckerman and Mickey Sabbath, while based in part on people in his own life, are not “autobiographical.” The only exception, he notes, is in “The Facts,” where he presents his own version of his real life “undistilled.”

In the PBS film, Roth credits Saul Bellow’s novel, “The Adventures of Augie Marsh” as being a major liberating influence in his own writing.  “It gave me the freedom, the freedom to use your own background” in his work, he said.  Roth no longer had to disguise his Jewish identify and sensibilities by pretending to be someone other than himself.

In “My Life as a Man,” which many regard as Roth’s best novel, he says, “At any rate, all I can do with my story is to tell it.  And tell it. And tell it.” 

Roth has done that very well in 27 remarkable and memorable books. Two of them have won the National Book Award for Fiction; four others were finalists. Two have won National Book Critics Circle awards and another five were finalists. Another, “American Pastoral”, won a Pulitzer Prize. He has also won three PEN/Faulkner Awards.  

In the PBS film, he signs off by saying, “Let that be the end.” Hopefully for those of us who regard Roth as one of his generation’s most seminal writers, this is not the end.  Maybe he just needs a time out.