Jay Jennings recommends the works of Gilbert Rogin

Author and journalist Jay Jennings wrote the other day to pass along his recommendation of the works of Gilbert Rogin, whose stories and novels were among the most wildly acclaimed in the 1960s and 1970s:

For years, a few friends and I worked to get the two great novels of Gilbert Rogin, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? and PREPARATIONS FOR THE ASCENT, back into print, and we finally succeeded in 2010 when they were reissued by Verse Chorus Press in one volume (Verse and Chorus link; Amazon link)

As I explain in the introduction, the novels are constructed mainly of stories that appeared in the New Yorker, which published 33 of them between 1963 and 1980, a number that puts him up there with Updike, Munro and Trevor. He won an award for literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1972, along with Thomas McGuane and Paula Fox, and the novels counted Updike, Joyce Carol Oates and Larry McMurtry among their fans. Most of all, Rogin is hilarious, in the same vein as but predating the smart, hyperobservant New York world of Seinfeld and Larry David.

My introduction originally appeared as an essay in the Lowbrow Reader here.

I really hate it when an author’s obituary provokes a resurgence of interest, and she or he is not able to enjoy it. I’m happy to report that Rogin is still alive, and I hope that more people will rediscover this fantastically original and funny writer, before we’re reading about his passing in the New York Times.

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Rogin, who spent most of his working days in the Time-Life building, as a staff writer, editor, and managing editor of most of the corporation’s biggest rags (People, Life, Fortune, Money , Vibe , and (his longest stint) Sports Illustrated, began publishing stories in the early 1960s. His first book, a collection of these early stories, The Fencing Master and Other Stories, was published by Random House in 1965.

His first novel, What Happens Next? (1971), was reviewed not once but twice in the New York Times. Anatole Broyard latched onto a word used in the book to describe Rogin’s outlook:

‘Velleities’ is a Gilbert Rogin word: I believe he is the only writer I’ve ever read who has used it. The dictionary defines velleity as “volition in its weakest form; a mere wish, unaccompanied by an effort to obtain it.” The poetry and the meaning of life, Mr. Rogin seems to suggest, lie not in its grand or heroic moments, but in its velleities. He may be right.

L. E. Sissman’s enthusiasm for the book shines throughout his review:

I think Gilbert Rogin has written a great novel, the first new one I’ve run across in quite some time.

… Moving in dozens of short movie takes from confrontation to soliloquoy to fantasy to dream, it shapes the whole history and predicament of its protagonist out of a solid, six-year block of time.

… Every scrap, every line, every joke is in the service of this artfully lifelike portrait of ourselves. Julian’s isolation, his anxieties, his guilt, his comical losses, his failure to establish belief in himself, are at once existential, contemporary ailments and part of the human estate.

Nine years later, Rogin published his second novel and last book, Preparations for the Ascent (1980). Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review, praising its “dour wit, persistent intelligence, rhetorical panache.”

Soon after this, however, Rogin suffered a writer’s block that’s lasted now for over thirty years. New Yorker editor Roger Angell rejected one of his stories, writing that he felt Rogin was “repeating himself.” In a feature piece in the New York Observer magazine, he told his former SI colleague, Franz Lidz:

That motherfucker literally demoralized me. Repeating myself? I repeated myself in all my stories. My entire life is repetition.

I was shattered… Maybe I knew I was all used up. Maybe I knew I’d exhausted the fiction vein. The idea had always been in the back of my mind. For whatever reason, after Roger voiced that opinion, I literally couldn’t write fiction again. Not a single word.

At last report, Rogin is still alive and active. His fans would certainly hold more than a velleity that he will pick up a pen once again.

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