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Sex in the '50s


Not wanting to be a writer
Philip Roth Writer
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What kind of idea did I have about who I might turn into? I didn't have any idea. I had no idea how anybody turned into anything. I was what I was. I was this… this kid, this boy. I… when I started college I wanted to be a lawyer, but I didn't want to be a lawyer, I just thought that's something… I didn't… that's something you could be, and I was very interested in equality and justice in America, partly I suppose from growing up Jewish. And so I thought that if I was a lawyer I would be marching in the cause of truth and justice. But within a year… and for the first year or so I took prelaw courses and so on, and I enjoyed some of them, but I began to take literature and the bell rang again and that just overwhelmed everything. And so I thought then that I'd be a college professor, that I'd be an English teacher, and that's what I thought throughout college and then I went to graduate school to get an advanced degree to become an English professor. And I… I wasn't interested in commerce. I… my interest in material things was negligible. I didn't want to get a lot of dough and so I thought I'd be a college professor, and in those days college professors were paid very poorly. Maybe they still are. And then I began to write stories. The first ones were no good, they were terrible – little college stories – and then I got better somehow and I began to sell some stories, not to… I didn't make huge sums of money, but people were recognizing that I was… had something. And then I… I sold a story to Esquire Magazine in 1958. I was 25 and I got $800, so I quit my job teaching at the University of Chicago and I came east with my $800, and thinking I could live for $100 a month. I did it and then I was off on… then I was off on becoming a writer. But no, I never dreamed of it, I never wanted it, I never thought of it.

The fame of the American writer Philip Roth (1933-2018) rested on the frank explorations of Jewish-American life he portrayed in his novels. There is a strong autobiographical element in much of what he wrote, alongside social commentary and political satire. Despite often polarising critics with his frequently explicit accounts of his male protagonists' sexual doings, Roth received a great many prestigious literary awards which include a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1997, and the 4th Man Booker International Prize in 2011.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Bucknell University, University of Chicago, Esquire

Duration: 3 minutes, 24 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2011

Date story went live: 18 March 2013