The Limits of Shyness

I've always wondered how difficult it must be to maintain a reclusive persona in the highly publicized world of book publishing. J.D. Salinger, now 89, has managed it pretty well. So has Thomas Pynchon. Cormac McCarthy held out for years -- his wife Annie DeLisle complained that they were living in virtual poverty even as he turned down fat fees to talk about his books.

Fame affects authors like Cormac McCarthy, top, and Philip Roth differently. (Top, Derek Shapton/AP; bottom, Helayne Seidman for The Washington Post

"He would tell them that everything he had to say was right there on the page," she said wistfully. "So we would eat beans for another week."

And yet when "No Country for Old Men" won the Oscar for best picture, there was McCarthy, his son at his side, leaping up and down for the cameras, whooping as loudly as any L.A. wannabe. I guess there's a limit to shyness. One thing or another is bound to bring the mole out of the hole.

Which brings me to Philip Roth. As Roth has matured into a better writer (American Pastoral and Indignation are as good as anything he's ever written), he's been more and more loath to be interviewed, tour, go through the publicity grind. Tomorrow, on Sept. 16, he reverses this trend by appearing in an unprecedented live interview blitz to be aired simultaneously in bookstores around the country.

So here's my question: Does an eminent, financially comfortable, otherwise reclusive author do this to please his readers? Or is he simply succumbing to the machine?

By Marie Arana |  September 15, 2008; 7:18 AM ET Marie Arana
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Another recluse, Tom Clancy, is better off staying out of sight. He's pretty nasty and won't 'lower himself' to giving interviews or signing books. He prefers to stay home with the firing range in the basement and the Army tank on the front lawn. That says it all, doesn't it?

Posted by: South of the Beltway | September 15, 2008 9:03 AM

I'm not surprised that any author would want to control the extent of their interaction with the media; Roth's attempt is most likely a response to his last several appearances on various interview programs such as NPR's Fresh Air, where the host simply ignored his actual answers. A limited promotional interview--likely spoonfed questions from a publicist at the publishing house--is far easier to control.

Posted by: Tallahassee Guy | September 15, 2008 12:40 PM

I just found your blog. I disagree with you about Moby Dick - I read it, and I'll become an evangelist for it when the proverbial freezes over. But I think your blog is wonderful. Keep the focus on the books, and don't succumb to celebrity worship. I am so looking forward to reading you in the future.

Posted by: kaleberg | September 15, 2008 1:55 PM

Roth has written great books for years. Check out his award numbers. Shyness has significant gentic component and can be an awful affliction. Flippant comments arent useful.

Posted by: David MacKinnon | September 15, 2008 1:58 PM

Not everyone has time for the Hollywood type of small talk, nor has an explanation for the explanation given in the first place. Not everyone is ready to become an icon, so then when the mediocre type finds out the flaws one may have, exploits such info for personal gain, while the losers of mankind, those who can't write, enjoy the fact they aren't the only ones made of thrash

Posted by: samurai3 | September 15, 2008 2:18 PM

Personally I'm turned off by self-promoting authors who turn out books every year just to satisfy their agents and bankers and then flog themselves any way they can. Hurrah for the shy ones.

Posted by: dave | September 15, 2008 5:08 PM

I meant FLACK themselves any way they can.

Posted by: dave | September 15, 2008 5:09 PM

Doesn't this whole question make you sad given what we now know about David Foster Wallace?
If you write, you're doing it because you have no choice.
No real writers imagine that their talent needs to be accompanied by a bright, promotable personality.

Posted by: Angelina | September 16, 2008 9:18 PM

i don't care what you say about cormac. he's a great, maybe greatest, living american writer.

Posted by: lovebooks | September 16, 2008 9:32 PM

If McCarthy's wife didn't like beans, then she should have written her own damn book and not blamed him for his choices. Remember Anne Tyler at the Oscars in the 1980s for "The Accidental Tourist," with Geena Davis waving to her from the stage? It was also her choice, and the only time of which I'm aware that she has done such a thing (although why she would have let Barnes & Noble put up a caricature of her along with those other ghastly Halloween author-heads in their stores and on their bags escapes me).

Posted by: Ms. Catsanova | September 17, 2008 6:45 AM

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