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The Tedious Obsession With Authors' Retirements

Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images

In a piece published in the National Post yesterday, Alice Munro—hours after winning the Trillium Book Award for her short story collection Dear Life—told a reporter that she was “probably not going to write anymore.” “Not that I didn’t love writing,” she added, “but I think you do get to a stage where you sort of think about your life in a different way. And perhaps, when you’re my age, you don’t wish to be alone as much as a writer has to be.” It was hardly a conclusive retirement—more like an affectionately weary expression of the quiet torments of the writing life—but still the National Post ran the headline “Alice Munro announces retirement from writing” and the report spread quickly online. And this wasn’t the first time Munro had declared an intention to quit: she made a similar vow several years ago in an essay for PEN Canada. Both times the literary world reliably pounced.  

Writers, of course, have long been known to drop hints about the end of their own careers, but these idle announcements often tend to be a way of managing reader expectations rather than a definitive retreat. Philip Roth’s retirement last year made news after Salon translated an interview from a French magazine in which Roth said, “Enough is enough! I no longer feel this fanaticism to write that I have experienced in my life.” It sounded more like he was giving up the obligation to write than writing itself, and people close to him seem skeptical that he is done for good. “I just don’t believe [he is really retiring]," said the filmmaker of the recent PBS documentary about Roth’s life.

There are plenty of novelists whose withdrawals from writing became the stuff of legend. Rimbaud flamed out before his 21st birthday and spent the rest of his life working as a soldier, in a stone quarry, as a salesman of coffee and guns. Salinger’s reclusive retirement fueled the mysterious lightning bolt quality of his legacy: one landmark novel, countless unpublished works. But today, in a culture obsessed with the minute chronicling of celebrity doings, our parsing of writers’ retirements has become preemptive, a kind of artistic augury. Of course, one needn’t retire from writing as if it were the same as quitting a law firm or terminating an athletic career. It’s nice to hold onto the myth that writers write because some inner urge compels them, rather than publishers or deadlines or financial pressures. And when a writer fails to retire, it is equally a media marvel. Whenever someone over eighty publishes anything, half the book review often reads like a referendum on their age. Cynthia Ozick told The New York Times Book Review in March that she was tired of seeing reviews written as a measure of a writer’s mortality. “Middle C [by William Gass] is nearly everywhere accompanied by the numeral 88, as if Gass were a set of piano keys. Even his publisher sees fit to identify him by his years: a masterpiece by an 88 year-old master.”

Munro’s interview came on the heels of another artist’s alleged renunciation of his art: Steven Soderbergh’s retirement from filmmaking at only age 50, announced last month. But this felt like a different, more calculated move. Soderbergh was capitalizing on the culture of media chatter. He delivered a speech about his frustrations with the industry; he saw an opportunity to make a statement about the narrow, limiting creative worldview of Hollywood. And he sought, also, a poetic kind of closure in showing his final movie at Cannes, the place that launched him over two decades ago. “It’s not often you get the opportunity to arrange that kind of symmetry,” Soderbergh told the Associated Press. “It’s funny to think about how long ago that was.” But even here, and even as reporters everywhere proclaimed the end of his filmmaking career, he left the door open. “In theory,” he said, “I’m done.”

Follow @lbennett.