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A tiny cog in the great wheel of imaginative literature
March 4, 2014 5:33 PM   Subscribe

The drama issues from the assailability of vital, tenacious men with their share of peculiarities who are neither mired in weakness nor made of stone and who, almost inevitably, are bowed by blurred moral vision, real and imaginary culpability, conflicting allegiances, urgent desires, uncontrollable longings, unworkable love, the culprit passion, the erotic trance, rage, self-division, betrayal, drastic loss, vestiges of innocence, fits of bitterness, lunatic entanglements, consequential misjudgment, understanding overwhelmed, protracted pain, false accusation, unremitting strife, illness, exhaustion, estrangement, derangement, aging, dying and, repeatedly, inescapable harm, the rude touch of the terrible surprise — unshrinking men stunned by the life one is defenseless against, including especially history: the unforeseen that is constantly recurring as the current moment.
Philip Roth on his life as a writer.
posted by shivohum (16 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
I really, really need to read me some Roth. I've reached the point where I'm embarrassed about it.
posted by nevercalm at 5:36 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


I was told to read him, so I did. Serious people who read proper books treated it as a given he was great (and updike, and mailer, and the amii, etc and literary broforth). I read more than one of his novels even. I tried. I was young and not certain enough of myself to be able say fuck that dude he's awful about many things, particularly about women, especially about women of a lower class. So now when I see reference to him, I'm torn between ranting, doing nothing, or typing out a simple snarky comment.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 6:15 PM on March 4 [10 favorites]


Roth is weirdly divisive. In some circles, he's one of the great American novelists. Among others, his writing is dismissed as "guy fiction" and Roth is seen as some kind of crusty old woman hater. I think the latter group has not read far enough beyond Portnoy's Complaint and The Breast, and erroneously read his male protagonists as sock puppets for the author.

For what it's worth, Roth does defend himself against the charge of misogyny in this very article, which also serves as a very good summation of the themes present throughout his work:
As I see it, my focus has never been on masculine power rampant and triumphant but rather on the antithesis: masculine power impaired. I have hardly been singing a paean to male superiority but rather representing manhood stumbling, constricted, humbled, devastated and brought down. I am not a utopian moralist. My intention is to present my fictional men not as they should be but vexed as men are.
Maleness is very central to what Roth writes about. I found his memoir, Patrimony, to be a profound meditation on fathers, and on the pain of losing them. I think about that book every time my father turns a year older.
posted by deathpanels at 6:37 PM on March 4 [3 favorites]


Belle Waring had some hilarious words to say about Roth, although I will admit to having not read him. She contends that he is weak as a writer of women characters (and that is what she finds sexist). Would those of you who have read him disagree?
posted by emjaybee at 7:12 PM on March 4 [2 favorites]


First Roth I ever read was an excerpt of The Professor Of Desire, published in an issue of Penthouse I found in the basement one day. Yep. Don't tell me no one read it for the articles. Then I got Portnoy's Complaint from the library and lost what innocence I had left when he fucked his family's dinner.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:29 PM on March 4


I really enjoyed some of the Roth I read in high school, but I still crack up thinking of one Booker Prize judge's not-unfair description of his writing: "he goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It's as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe".
posted by threeants at 7:55 PM on March 4 [1 favorite]


I've never read Roth, not being a heavy litfic reader (less from disliking it than from having a big to-read pile of genre fiction and non-fiction), but after his sneering comments about stupid people traducing him by accusing him of misogyny, I can't imagine why I would. He doesn't strike me as a misogynist in the I-hate-all-you-bitches kind of way, but the answer to that question drips with contempt for women who don't approach him in the way he thinks is proper. Life is too short to drink bad beer, and if that's his kind of beer, I'm pretty sure it's not for me.
posted by immlass at 9:34 PM on March 4


Maleness is very central to what Roth writes about.

Ye-es, but I found (have only read two Roth books) it's a very, very singular facet of masculinity. A very small facet explicated to the point of monomania, almost. I mean, maleness is also very central to Michael Chabon's work, imho, but he covers far, far wider territory within that demesne, especially in his short stories. I haven't seen that diversity from Roth.

Additionally, I find his books almost unremmittingly middle class; they are absolutely riddled with class anxiety, I feel, the prospect of slipping down a class, the loss - social and mental primarily, not economic - that would entail. He regards the working class with fear and yet he obviously has had very very little contact with it.

I can't help feeling a lot of his success rides on a demographic profile that matched popular critics now, and especially when he rose to prominence. I struggle to see his relevance outside that narrow demographic, personally - and I love American literature, and can easily call to mind a canon of great male American writers that I love or at least appreciate. He ain't on the list, and I can't help thinking no one will talk of him in fifty years time, except as a cultural footnote.
posted by smoke at 12:35 AM on March 5 [3 favorites]


My problem with Roth is that about once every 50 pages he writes a paragraph that is so insightful and brilliant that I have to question every misogynistic piece of shit one that came before it. I feel like he's messing with me. I keep reading to figure out the riddle and the resolutions never come. But those damn paragraphs stay with me to this day.
posted by iamkimiam at 3:21 AM on March 5


James Wood makes a big to-do about a sentence from Sabbath's Theater, in his book How Fiction Works. Reading that bit, I was a little repulsed, but I saw Wood's point.
posted by newdaddy at 3:24 AM on March 5


> I can't help thinking no one will talk of him in fifty years time, except as a cultural footnote.

I'm not going to waste time defending him against the charge of being middle-class (really? that's a criterion for who's worth reading?), but I'm quite sure you're wrong about this. Anyone is, of course, free not to like Roth or any other writer, even on specious ideological grounds (there are people who won't read Hemingway because of "misogyny"), but to confuse one's own tastes/preferences/ideology with artistic truth is folly. Seriously, the reverence for Roth is not some sort of mass delusion or hegemonic conspiracy. He's a terrific writer, and I hope some of the naysayers will eventually come to see that. Give him another chance in a few years.
posted by languagehat at 8:00 AM on March 5 [2 favorites]


he is not a terrific writer. While I don't know the misogyny bits, I did try several times to read his alt-ww2 story with Lindburgh (Plot Against America), and it was awful. Plodding, trite and over-verbose. Tried multiple times, and always was quitting before page 60. Left me wondering, why do people think his writing is good ? The writing was awful, the story was not intriguing or well told, and did not draw me in at all.
posted by k5.user at 8:10 AM on March 5


he is not a terrific writer. While I don't know the misogyny bits, I did try several times to read his alt-ww2 story with Lindburgh (Plot Against America), and it was awful. Plodding, trite and over-verbose. Tried multiple times, and always was quitting before page 60. Left me wondering, why do people think his writing is good ? The writing was awful, the story was not intriguing or well told, and did not draw me in at all.

interesting. i just read the same book (The Plot Against America) and had the exact opposite reaction. i read it during lunch breaks, on the bus, before bed. i found the writing propulsive and the various cultural, familial, and intergenerational conflicts set against the backdrop of the alt-historical unraveling of America (plausible, terrifying) deeply engrossing.
posted by echocollate at 9:26 AM on March 5 [1 favorite]


I did try several times to read his alt-ww2 story with Lindburgh (Plot Against America), and it was awful. Plodding, trite and over-verbose.

I read it when it came out and I had a very different reaction as well. I thought it fell apart at the end when the horror that's been building throughout just sort of ... dissipates, as if Roth couldn't bear to resolve it unhappily. But aside from that, I found it a compelling story and especially good at evoking the helpless frustration of individuals caught in historical catastrophes.

I find his books almost unremmittingly middle class; they are absolutely riddled with class anxiety, I feel, the prospect of slipping down a class, the loss - social and mental primarily, not economic - that would entail.

I agree with the Hat. Uncongenial as you may find it, this is primo material for novelists. It's a state of affairs that the novel was pretty much was invented to dramatize. It certainly isn't a strike against a novelist. I don't adore Roth. I've read about a third of his oeuvre and I've mostly enjoyed what I read, but I don't get the same thrill from him that I get from, say, Hollinghurst or Eugenides (to name two other male writers, neither of whom are yet the writer Roth is/was, I think). Maybe his world is too resolutely heterosexual. But I still think he's a writer worth reading and I'd still argue that his ambitions and his obsessions and his body of work make him one of the "great" 20th century American novelists for whatever value "great" has.

Relatedly, this is one of my favorite metafilter comments EVAR.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:22 PM on March 5 [1 favorite]


(really? that's a criterion for who's worth reading?),

Well, it is for me, at any rate. I find it very parochial and reflexive. Not that there aren't, as October surprise says, lots of great writers focusing on the middle class, but I personally get the sense that's all Roth can see or is interested in. Richard Ford I'd another very male American writer who has more range and subtlety (and for me, better prose).

But Roth has written a lot and I try to keep an open mind. Roth fans which of his many books would you recommend a sceptic try?
posted by smoke at 1:58 PM on March 5


Ye-es, but I found (have only read two Roth books) it's a very, very singular facet of masculinity.
Perhaps if you read some more of his books, particularly those written in the latter half of his career, you might change your mind. I have heard Roth dismissed often enough that I suspect many people have formed an opinion of him based on the protagonist in Portnoy's Complaint, who is an outright despicable antihero. (This is, in fact, a topic of contention in the deathpanels homestead.)
posted by deathpanels at 4:29 PM on March 5


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