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

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.







Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."


The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.


Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.


The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.


Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.


Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.


Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.


The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.


Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.


The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.


'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.


Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.


Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.


South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.


Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.


'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.