Books

If the Aim of Literature Is to Spark Debate, Philip Roth Has Succeeded

This sprawling collection of Philip Roth's nonfiction is often insightful, sometimes fascinating, and occasionally overlong.

When Philip Roth announced his retirement from literary fiction back in 2012, the reaction was mixed. For many, Roth is one of the last great surviving voices of 20th Century literature; John Updike and Saul Bellow are both unfortunately deceased, while Thomas Pynchon lives a reclusive existence and, while Don DeLillo is still alive and working, as is Paul Auster, these 'Great American Authors' of the 20th Century are growing fewer and further with each passing year.



Why Write? Collected Nonfiction 1960-2013

Publisher: Library of America
Length: 452 pages
Author: Philip Roth
Price: $35.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

To others, however, Roth is less revered. Famously, Man Booker International Prize judge Carmen Callil resigned from the panel after the decision to award Roth its accolade, while the Jewish author has been labeled a 'semitic anti-semite' by some, thanks to his depiction of Jewish characters, particularly in his earlier books.

The sexual predilections of some of his characters -- see Portnoy's Complaint, The Breast, The Humbling, for example -- have not endeared him to everyone, while critically acclaimed television series Girls used his work as a touchstone reference point for misogyny. If the aim of literature is to spark debate, Roth has succeeded.

Love or loathe Roth, his skill as a writer and his dedication to the craft are difficult to deny. Few people in recent years have had the controversial and problematic mantle of 'Great Man of Letters' bestowed upon them as often as he. Why is this? Because of the prolific and high-quality contribution he has made to our literary canon.

The complexity of his characters such as Nathan Zuckerman and David Kepesh -- both of whom feature across a number of Roth's books; the ease with which works like American Pastoral and The Plot Against America unpick the accepted realities of America's historical narratives -- none of this is by accident and it all makes clear that these are the works of a great writer.

So, with Roth retired from the world of literary fiction, there's no better time than the present to turn our attention to his considerable library of non-fiction. As you might expect from someone whose name is synonymous with the written word, there's rather a lot of it.

The scope of the Library of America's latest collection, Why Write?, begins in 1960, as the novelist's first major work, Goodbye Columbus, was making a splash on the American literary scene.

From here, it covers 53 years of prose output, culminating in 2013, only three years after the publication of his final novel, Nemesis. All in all, this is an exhaustive collection of work.

But it's not always an easy collection to engage with. Casual fans of Roth's, delving into this treasure trove of his thought and reflection, may be disappointed with Why Write?. To start with, the collection is too disparate to make much sense as a stand-alone work. Roth is not plowing the furrow of an academic, building on and developing philosophical or critical ideas over time; nor is he acting as a social or cultural commentator, illuminating the areas left darkened beyond the boundaries of his fictional work. Instead, he is exploring the act of writing, the act of characterisation, the act of reading, the act of expression, and he's settling long-standing misconceptions. There's a scattergun feel to the collection, through no fault of the author's.

His appraisals of the great works of Saul Bellow, for example, make for fascinating reading for fans of both writers, but make little sense for readers without the contextual knowledge of the relationship between Bellow and Roth. The essay on Kafka, which opens the book, meanders into a family anecdote about a suitor of one of Roth's aunts. It's strange and self-indulgent but it does make sense when viewed alongside the wider body of Roth's work.

So we find ourselves at a crossroads. Causal fans of Roth's may struggle with what is a rather disjointed and incoherent collection spanning five decades of work. But hardcore fans -- vociferous readers of Roth's output -- may find themselves going over familiar ground.

While there are 13 previously unreleased pieces included in this volume -- spanning the time period from 1992 to 2013 -- much of what is collected here has been released before. The opening segment of the book was published as the Reading Myself and Others collection back in 1976, and the Shop Talk volume in 2001.

It's this middle section, "Shop Talk", which is perhaps the most rewarding for the general reader. Anyone harbouring a general interest in Roth's work, as well as those approaching from a more serious academic standpoint, will be delighted with this section, which shines a spotlight on the writer's at work.

The bulk of "Shop Talk" is made up of conversations between Roth and other writers, including Primo Levi, Ivan Klima, Milan Kundera, and Edna O'Brien. Of these, perhaps the conversation with O'Brien is the most illuminating, as 'Roth the Interviewer' is confronted with something several steps removed from himself -- a writer of a different nationality and a different gender.

Always an amiable conversationalist and an insightful interlocutor, most of Roth's interviews are worth reading, but the encounter with O'Brien manages to steer away from the cozy aesthetic of 'two successful middle aged men chatting about success', and is all the better for it.

The final section, "Explanations", deals in part with something which becomes a noticeable theme across the entire collection: setting the record straight. Roth's ire at being confused with his creation Nathan Zuckerman (both Jewish novelists of a similar age, both from Newark, New Jersey) is put to bed by the time the collection's first section is complete, but Roth's clearing of the air rages on.

"Explanations" is made up of a series of talks and letters delivered throughout the '90s and into the second decade of the 21st century. Several of these pieces are marvellous; "The Ruthless Intimacy of Fiction", for example, seeks to disentangle, and then to re-entangle, the threads of fact and fiction, illustrating how a literary heart is always laid bare. The Yiddish/English acceptance speech for a Jewish Research Lifetime Achievement Award from the YIVO Institute is similarly fascinating and is a short but sweet examination of the interface between the two languages.

Other pieces, however, are rambling and, in many cases, unnecessary. "Errata" is a case in point; a sprawling section of an open letter written by Roth to Wikipedia in 2012, "Errata" sees Roth settling, at extreme length, a series of errors pertaining to his life and work. While we as readers can understand his frustrations about being misrepresented, the protracted nature of the piece has a habit of quickly eroding any sympathy we may have held for Roth and his plight.

Why Write? is, ultimately, a fine companion piece to the work of a brilliant novelist. It's flawed, and perhaps a little bloated, but fans of Roth will find much to enjoy here.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image