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Writer Wars: Tepper vs Roth

Writer Wars: Tepper vs Roth

writer Julian Tepper
Julian Tepper

New writer Julian Tepper deliberately violated the terms of employment for his day job as a waiter by interrupting a famous author, Phillip Roth, at breakfast in order to inflict upon Roth an unsolicited copy of Tepper’s debut novel.  Having intentionally violated the terms of his employment once, Tepper escalated his wrong-doing by writing about the encounter – from a purely self-centred point of view – and submitting that article for publication in the Paris Review.  Thus the fuse was lit for the Writer Wars.

Tepper aims for a self-deprecating tone in his article:

With my debut novel, Balls, now published, I would conquer my nerves and give him a copy. Sure, many months before I had heard him say in an interview that he no longer read fiction. But his reading the book was not the point: having worshiped at the Roth altar for more than half of my thirty-three years, it was simply something that had to be done. And here was my chance.

What did Tepper hope to achieve by violating the terms of his employment and publishing community etiquette?  Did he hope for some words of wisdom?  A benediction?  For Roth to break his ‘no fiction’ rule for the extra-special Tepper?

According to Tepper, the exchange went like this:

 “Sir, I’ve heard you say that you don’t read fiction anymore, but I’ve just had my first novel published and I’d like to give you a copy.”

His eyes lifting from his iPhone, he took the book from my hands. He congratulated me. Then, staring at the cover, he said, “Great title. I’m surprised I didn’t think of it myself.” …

Then Roth, who, the world would learn sixteen days later, was retiring from writing, said, in an even tone, with seeming sincerity, “Yeah, this is great. But I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”

I managed, “It’s too late, sir. There’s no turning back. I’m in.”

Nodding slowly, he said to me, “Well then, good luck.”

I read this exchange and visualised an older writer who has been around, who understands the angst involved in creation, the exhaustion of juggling a day job while writing, hoping to break into the publishing industry, the agony of rejections and the indignity of receiving editorial corrections.

I see an experienced writer who is being very polite while being interrupted so that a new author can foist YET ANOTHER unwanted novel upon him.  I am a book-blogger, a relative nobody, and yet I receive more than enough books (solicited and unsolicited) for myself and a small group of reviewers.  I imagine the mountains of books Roth has received during his career: I’m sure he could have stocked a reasonable-sized library with unwanted books.

I read this exchange and see Roth giving the same advice to a new author that hundreds of writers have given to aspiring writers.

Tepper sees this differently as he recounts mulling over the exchange and his missed opportunity to prolong the conversation:

…I would have asked him not whether he would have traded in all the celebrity, the money, and the sex to have lived the more plain existence of, say, an insurance agent. No, I would have asked him about boredom. And though I have only one novel published—and experienced none of the success of Roth—I still feel strongly that the one thing a writer has above all else, the reward which is bigger than anything that may come to him after huge advances and Hollywood adaptations, is the weapon against boredom…

Writing as a weapon against boredom is one thing; its not unlike playing a computer game or watching TV except that writing is a creative pastime.  Being published is a very different kettle of fish but Tepper doesn’t focus on the process of publishing a novel.  Tepper reveals his true motivations when he waxes eloquently about celebrity, money and sex.

Tepper is also highly manipulative in this article: he claims to fear the loss of his job:

I’ve actually signed a piece of paper that said I wouldn’t write about patrons or bother them with things such as my novel, the consequence being my termination … I hope I have a job tomorrow, the child will need diapers!

And yet he

[keeps] copies of the novel in a knapsack under the waiter’s station just for moments like these.

Contradiction much?

With Tepper’s subsequent article published in the Paris Review, where he wrote about a patron AND bothering that patron with his novel, I can only assume that Tepper’s true motivation is celebrity.  Tepper confirms this suspicion of mine by writing a public apology for the Paris Review article – and publishing it in the Daily Beast, another well-read publication.  If the apology was genuine it should have been either private or in the Paris Review as a retraction, not in a rival publication seeking the attention of a wider audience, beginning:

Look, I have to apologize. You told me to quit writing. It was a terrific moment in my life. I went and wrote an essay about it and now people are angry. Elizabeth Gilbert is angry. People listen to her. They love her. Now they’re not happy with you. But then people are reading negativity into an incident where there was none. Having been there, and lived through it, and with the backlash, I wanted to write you and say I’m sorry. Since I don’t have your address, I’ve chosen to reach you through the media. I hope you get this.

Tepper goes on and on in this ‘apology’, an apology that completely fails to convince me that it is anything other than a bid for more celebrity and perhaps book sales.

Another facet of the Tepper situation I find highly distasteful are the reviews of his book.  We’ve had ‘cash for review’ scandals that revealed some reviews are paid advertising.  We’ve had fake reviews written by the authors themselves under pseudonyms.  We’ve had a number of variations on these themes.

Tepper’s reviews are dodgy at best.  He has a review FROM HIS COPY EDITOR Julia Callahan:

I usually don’t write reviews of books my company publishes, but this book is absolutely amazing. I read it for a copy edit and had to remind myself that I was supposed to be checking for spelling and grammar errors.

Another review on Amazon is duplicated on Goodreads BUT the review on Goodreads is 3 stars while the identical review on Amazon is 4 stars.  The reviewer also declared himself to be ‘an acquaintance’ of Tepper.

I won’t bother reading Tepper’s novel; not just because of his dreadful prose in his apology and his self-revelations in the original article and apology.  Tepper’s lack of self-awareness leads me to believe his characters will lack depth.  Tepper’s focus on celebrity, his failure to adhere to etiquette, his deliberate violation of an employment contract and the reviews of his book lead me to believe that Tepper’s relationship with the publishing industry is likely to be tenuous, relying on notoriety and fraught with conflict before an implosion sends him scurrying back to his day job, relieved that he can provide his sexless, ageless child with diapers.



Is THAT what Tepper calls that travesty of an apology? A ‘defence’ of Philip Roth?  SERIOUSLY???

Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.


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