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Roth's Relief

Roth's Relief

In an extraordinarily candid interview, Philip Roth, Man Booker International Prize winner in 2011, shared his thoughts some five years after deciding never to write another novel. When asked what it was like to write 31 novels he responded with a visceral description of what drove him: “Morning after morning for 50 years, I faced the next page defenceless and unprepared. Writing for me was a feat of self-preservation. If I did not do it, I would die. So I did it. Obstinacy, not talent, saved my life. It was also my good luck that happiness didn’t matter to me and I had no compassion for myself.” To have released himself from such a morbid compulsion must therefore be cathartic, and so it has proved . . . up to a point: “It is now truly a great relief, something close to a sublime experience, to have nothing more to worry about than death.” Would-be writers should take note; writing is not a profession for the faint-hearted.

Emma Donoghue, Man Booker Prize shortlisted in 2010 with Room, takes the writing lark in a less apocalyptic way. It is, she says, about “Getting to indulge yourself in your own obsessions. You can sit around for hours on end, daydreaming about whatever floats into your head, and googling it, and then claim ‘I worked hard today’!” It is also “let’s face it, an ego-trip of the highest order”.

Jonathan Bate, one of this year's Man Booker Prize judges, will need the consolation of the best contemporary literature in the face of a major setback. Professor Bate has spent the past four years working on a biography of the poet Ted Hughes. The biography was not “authorised” although it was to be written with the “full co-operation” of the poet's estate. This co-operation has now been rescinded: Bate has been barred from quoting from archive material, using private archives and material he has already photocopied for his research must be returned. The withdrawal of support came, says Bate, “completely out of the blue”. Far from being downcast, however, he is using the reversal to his benefit. His book will appear: “I am disappointed at losing so much of Hughes's wonderful written voice, but it is actually proving good writerly discipline to weave his thoughts in with my own words and not to fall back on big blocks of quotation.”

Man Booker authors have been writing letters again. This time it is the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's decision to ban Twitter – “an unacceptable violation of the right to freedom of speech” – that has roused them. Among the signatories to an open letter from the writers' charity PEN are Man Bookerites Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith and Margaret Atwood (alongside the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk and Günter Grass). In it they appeal to the prime minister to “remember that this beautiful country will be stronger and happier when, and if, it appreciates pluralism, diversity and the freedom of words”.

In case you have missed it, Alison MacLeod's Man Booker 2013 longlisted Unexploded is BBC Radio 4's current “Book at Bedtime”. The serialisation has already started and runs until 11th April. The first episodes are available on iPlayer – perhaps catch up by trying one before an afternoon nap and the next before retiring at night. It's a win, win situation.