"Who needs to read one more mediocre book?"
November 10, 2012 9:28 AM   Subscribe

"At the end of his life, the boxer Joe Louis said, ‘I did the best I could with what I had.’ It’s exactly what I would say of my work: I did the best I could with what I had.” [The New Yorker] "The writer Philip Roth announced his retirement in a little-noticed interview with a French magazine [Les Inrocks] and said that Nemesis, which was published in 2010, would be his last book."
posted by Fizz (29 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

posted by dobbs at 9:54 AM on November 10, 2012

Yay, no more mediocre books from Philip Roth.
posted by Yakuman at 10:41 AM on November 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I know right. I'm so sick of being forced to read mediocre literary fiction. Can't wait till Franzen quits so I am just left alone in peace. Don't get me started on Rick Moody. Every book of his I read is pure torture. Please stop Rick, I beg you.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:59 AM on November 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

His 'mediocre' is a hell of a lot better than a lot of people's 'best'.

I'm just glad he wrote as many as he did, for as long as he did.
posted by KHAAAN! at 11:07 AM on November 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

I just read that interview - it's a good one, too. Roth ... I kind of can't believe he's just decided to quit, but then again, who knows?
posted by From Bklyn at 11:20 AM on November 10, 2012

Every book of his I read is pure torture.

I know you. You patronize those restaurants that serve generous portions of bad food.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:34 PM on November 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

saddening, but creative platforms have opened up on the internet. he will be succeeded by innovative talents from sites like twitter, such a
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 12:55 PM on November 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Maybe it's a joke, le "what if" being "what if Philip Roth stopped writing novels?"

Also: "'Don't you see what my life is? You think I like being nobody? You think I'm crazy about my hollow life? I hate it! I hate New York! I don't ever want to go back to that sewer! I want to live in Vermont, Commissioner! I want to live in Vermont with you - and be an adult, whatever the hell that is! I want to be Mrs. Somebody-I-Can-Look-Up-To. And Admire! And Listen To!'" (From Portnoy's Complaint)
posted by chavenet at 1:08 PM on November 10, 2012

I never understood what people saw in Philip Roth until I read "The Ghost Writer".
posted by acrasis at 2:00 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well, and I say this as a fan of both these men, I hope retirement treats Roth better than it treated Joe Louis.

For me, the Philip Roth passage that will stick with me forever is the bit from The Counterlife with the young man at the Wailing Wall pretending to catch a baseball, and jumping around yelling that the Tel Aviv Giants won the pennant. I'm not doing it justice with this pithy summary.
posted by .kobayashi. at 2:39 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have never been able to get through Roth's earlier works, being repeatedly defeated by the misogyny they display. That said, I thought that The Plot against America had a lot to say and will strongly recommend Nemesis to anyone who wants to understand a largely forgotten and hugely important part of twentieth century American history, the scourge of polio.
posted by Morrigan at 3:30 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Many years ago I was recommended American Pastoral as a good book to get into Philip Roth but I found its depiction of women ludicrously sexist that I just couldn't finish it. Every once in a while people whose discernment I respect speak highly of him as a writer. Can anyone here recommend a book of Roth's to read for a guy who couldn't stand American Pastoral?
posted by Kattullus at 4:33 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

How is Roth's work sexist? Just honestly asking. I haven't read him yet.
posted by ReeMonster at 5:24 PM on November 10, 2012

old person is old
posted by waxbanks at 6:22 PM on November 10, 2012

G.M.N., R.I.P.
posted by Catchfire at 6:29 PM on November 10, 2012

Can anyone here recommend a book of Roth's to read for a guy who couldn't stand American Pastoral?

I'd very highly recommend The Plot Against America, but I think it's important to think of it as a book of and about the Bush years. I fear it will not hold up to history because the context in which it was written will be lost. But it's fabulous. That he is retiring is hugely saddening.
posted by OmieWise at 6:56 PM on November 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Rather than blather on about retirement of Philip Roth and the ongoing Death of Literary Fiction, I'll just link to this MetaFilter comment from a 2009 thread discussing the death of John Updike. Matteo summed it up better than I could:

I think that even those of us who have never been fans of Updike's in the least (in my case this is an understatement) cannot deny that, with his passing, American letters has lost one of the few remaining serious authors from a generation that by now has basically disappeared: the generation of writers who came of age in an era where novels were supposed to be ... an important part of culture and daily life. I doubt I'll read him in the future, but he's one of those writers -- Mailer, Vidal, Capote, McCullers -- whose books, successful or not, were supposed to be relevant. They were meant to be taken seriously ...

Even their beefs mattered: remember Mailer vs Vidal? Now (minor) stuff happens only when Franzen disses Oprah. I think people like Chabon, Franzen, Antrim, Lethem have good reason to envy that old mindset; back then, their job mattered. Now serious fiction is a corollary of a publishing business that survives on cookbooks, hi-concept thrillers, ghostwritten bios, and Harry Potter. Serious novelists now are caught between a rock (the Da Vinci Code type of mindless mega bestseller) and a hard place (TV, the Internet, media that's not really tailormade for serious literature).

Reading serious fiction is now more or less society's afterthought, the passion of a dwindling, increasingly less relevant audience. As much as I deeply dislike his fiction and his criticism, Updike's death makes even me, as a reader, poorer.

Enjoy your retirement, Mr. Roth, if possible. Put down the pen and play with the kitten, you deserve it.
posted by spoobnooble II: electric bugaboo at 7:18 PM on November 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

I admit I havent read all of his work but I've like all of what I have read with the possible exception of Sabbath's Theatre.

I don't really find his early work sexist as much as a portrayal of how people were in that time and place. Of course he is just like Updike in that his works are very male dominated, but you can't really fault a writer for writhing what he knows. In some sense women in many of his books are simply there as devices for men to react to, but again, that is what he knows.

Honestly I think people should start with Goodbye Columbus. I remember It as a very tender exploration if the Jewish experience in postwar suburbia. While not a glowing depiction of suburban life, It offers a nice counterpoint to more caustic views of suburbia.

When he is food he is very good, and when his is funny he is very funny.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:38 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Of course people should read Portnoy's Complaint, it is the quintessential late 60s sex comedy.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:41 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

He is different than Updike in that Updike is fundamentally paternalistic. Rabbit Angstrom is a reaction to male heros who abrogate their responsibilities to their society and family, attempt to escape their role as providers. I don't think Roth sees men that way, certainly some are trapped, but it isn't something to be celebrated, it is to be pitied. I think Roth's opinion is that men should be artists of their own lives, wherever that may take them.

That is just how I read them though.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:48 PM on November 10, 2012

I put down a couple Roth novels (the insane misogyny) before someone gave me Operation Shylock, which I though was the tits. I also thought The Human Stain was an exceptional, complicated novel about more than just one guy's feelings about his willy.
Yes to Portnoys Complaint which I thought was a hilarious depiction of the bottomless libido of teenage boys, but no to Goodbye Columbus which I could not at all relate to and found somehow precious and dry.
I kind of decided he was writing one crazy and awesome book about every five to ten years, and then a lot of other books which didn't move me so much.
posted by From Bklyn at 11:30 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I read American Pastoral as my first and only Roth book (ever? so far? not sure) and had the exact same reaction as Kattullus. Ridiculously sexist, misogynistic, self-indulgent, masturbatory and more. But then again, there's this passage, which I think is so mind blowing that I kept returning to it on page 36. I think every once in a while he gets it so right (heh) that I'm wanting to wade through more muck and soiled emperors clothes for those good bits. So if somebody has an idea about which book they're in, I'd give him another go.
“You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you're anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you're with them; and then you go home and tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision each other's interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact is that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that - well, lucky you.”
posted by iamkimiam at 1:19 AM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

...I thought was the tits. The tits? really? oh I have the worst case of moron-itis...
posted by From Bklyn at 12:04 PM on November 11, 2012

I feel kind of sad that there are only 20+ comments in this thread, when you consider how big Roth was during the 60s and 70s.

I have only one slender personal connection to the man: in the 1960s he briefly had a love affair with a woman named Barbara Sproul, who is currently a head of the Religious Studies program at Hunter College, where I got my undergraduate degree. He dedicated one novel to her (The Great American American Novel I believe ). She was also rumored to be the shiksa love interest in one of his minor novels, The Professor of Desire. She once confided to me that he was "nuts" but not in a clinical or derogatory sense, but in the endearing, impetuous way common among writers.
posted by zorro astor at 1:10 PM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Writer Panio Gianopoulos writes an encomium to Philip Roth in Salon that is slightly embarrassing in the way that all earnest blogposts about personal heroes are, but I found it worthwhile reading. His description of The Counterlife sounds interesting:
One of Roth’s most effective techniques is to have a character systematically build an argument that seems irrefutable, and then for another character to come along and, tank-like, destroy it. A second, equally persuasive, argument is constructed — only to be demolished and replaced by a third argument, et cetera. In “Operation Shylock” — besides “The Human Stain,” Roth’s most explicit novel about imposterhood (tagged with the impish subtitle “A Confession”) — he goes on and on with this game, first building and then dismantling, first conviction then discredit, like some parodic refutation of the Hegelian triad, thesis and antithesis lurching ever onward with no chance of generative reconciliation. Twenty-seven years ago, in “The Counterlife,” Roth applied this technique to the art of narrative itself, hammering home the idea that even our lives are fragmentary, misunderstood, and unknowable.
Ach, so many books to read, yet so many cat videos to peruse.
posted by Kattullus at 4:55 PM on November 11, 2012

I've only ever read The Ghost Writer and I was blown away not only by the quality of the writing but by the gesture that Roth was making with it: a kind of ode to the craft of writing & Jewish identity.

I have two very nice Zuckerman LOA editions sitting on my shelf and I've barely touched them. This is as good a reminder as any to read more Roth.
posted by Fizz at 8:31 AM on November 12, 2012

Well he should be doing some work. Something in his spare time maybe. Iit's not like he's just going to just go jerk off the rest of his ... er...

...great, now I have a taste for liver and onions.
posted by Smedleyman at 5:07 PM on November 12, 2012

It's not just that the content of his novels is sexist, it's that his whole reputation rests on a sexist belief that someone like Roth has Something Important to Say, while women who similarly deal with domestic themes, (Anne Tyler anyone?) are treated like airport novelists.
posted by latkes at 4:44 PM on November 13, 2012

I don't think his reputation lies exclusively on some sexist blind spot/ bias. I wouldn't put him, necessarily, 'ahead' of Alice Munroe. Or Toni Morrison.
I've never read Anne Tyler, so I can't say anything about her.
And I do think his more aggressively misogynist novels do and should be held against him. What I have always valued most about him as a novelist is his insights on growing up the son of immigrants in America, about what it is to be a Jew in America, and how life at times is utterly foreign and baffles, resolutely, ones expectations. And his writing is really good and tight and expressive.
Yes, he is white and male and at times that has not served him well - he has maybe taken it for granted. But shortcomings and all I think he has worked hard and well and in good faith.
I will always find his lapses into misogyny tedious but they are not the point of his novels, I don't believe, but his Achilles heel and when he overcomes it I know I have gotten a tremendous amount from his novels.
posted by From Bklyn at 11:43 PM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

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