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.

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.

RATING 6 / 10