David Gooblar is the author of The Major Phases of Philip Roth (Continuum, 2011). On the one hand, the book is just what the title implies: a wide-angled survey of Roth’s career from its National Book Award–beginning almost up to his latest phase of brief “nemeses” books. However, each chapter collects and interprets a phase in Roth’s career, some of which (as with Zuckerman Bound) seem obvious and others that might not. As a result, in addition to providing such a convincing reminder of the scope of Roth’s novelistic achievement, Gooblar makes the books talk to one another in interesting ways.
For instance, the fact/fiction phase of Roth’s career, which includes The Facts, Patrimony, Deception, and Operation Shylock, is flooded in a new interpretive light that not only indicates an interesting shift in Roth’s writing but also does deeply complex work about the whole issue of the consequences of writing about real people in the world. For Roth, the issue is not merely one of academic debate but one which he repeatedly passes through his novelistic combine; each book attacks the problem from a different angle. So what might seem to the casual Roth reader as a momentary late 80s dip in excitement between runs of Nathan Zuckerman novels turns out to be, under Gooblar’s watchful criticism, a just-as-intensely-envisioned set of books as we see from Roth elsewhere. After reading Gooblar’s book I came away re-convinced that Roth is so exceedingly self-conscious and profoundly deliberate in his work that his oeuvre nearly rivals Vladimir Nabokov in its cohesion of vision. And like the best criticism, it made me want to dive back into that wide shelf of Roth’s career.
Barrett Hathcock: How did you come to write about Philip Roth? What led you to do this book?
David Gooblar: I came to Roth late. I bought a used copy of The Counterlife in the summer before I began my Master’s in London, and by the time I had to start thinking about what to write about for my MA dissertation, I had read all of the Zuckerman books and quite a few of the others as well. I grew up Jewish in New Jersey, which may have something to do with why Roth’s voice on the page connected with me. I just found the books wonderful: funny, full of life, backed by the fiercest intelligence. And I fell in love with Roth’s books at the same time that I was discovering that academic research and writing was something I wanted to do for a living.
My MA dissertation was on The Counterlife as the pivot point in Roth’s career, and I enrolled in a PhD with the idea of writing about self-reflexivity in Roth (I was still drunk on The Counterlife, you see). Eventually I smartened up and dropped the postmodern angle; what resulted was a dissertation that eventually became this book.
BH: What is the book about? How does it approach Roth differently from other critical approaches?
DG: The book is a chronological study of Roth’s career from its beginnings up to The Human Stain (2000). My guiding thesis is that Roth is a writer who refuses to be pinned down. Throughout his career, he has made a sport out of confounding expectations, producing enough kinds of books for a number of literary careers. Many other critics have attempted to define Roth as this or that, as an essentially comic writer, say, or as a writer primarily concerned with masculine subjectivity. I maintain—and I realize this can be seen as a cop-out—that any such limiting definitions of Roth can be met with at least a handful of counter-examples that prove the definition wrong. He has been seen as the scourge of the Jewish-American community as well as its literary ambassador to the world at large. He is often painted as one of the last of the old guard, stubbornly clinging to the exhausted shell of the démodé realist novel, but he has also produced some deeply experimental works, as attuned to the instability of language and identity as the staunchest postmodernist. I would say that he is now as equally known for American Pastoral, an almost entirely po-faced and self-consciously serious reflection on (in part) the failures of mid-century American idealism, as he is known for Portnoy’s Complaint, the obscene and hilarious sex-obsessed novel that made him a household name in 1969. So it’s nearly impossible to say, at this point, what Roth is.
In response to this occupational difficulty, I divided Roth’s oeuvre up into phases, or eras, of preoccupation, to show some of the ways in which he has evaded stasis over the years. This isn’t a perfect approach, and the book is obviously not meant to be definitive, but I wanted to give a sense of Roth’s progression over the years while at the same time showing that what he’s often doing is frustrating the very concept of “progression”. I also wanted to show how Roth—for all that he’s often portrayed as staring deep into his own belly button—has always been very open to the culture around him. And so the book has sections about mid-century American liberalism, the New York Intellectuals, psychoanalysis and its successors, and other historical narratives, because they’re a part of Roth’s story too.
BH: In most recent popular journalism, Roth is portrayed primarily as the last literary lion, an elder statesman of American literature who can seemingly do no wrong. He is the subject of sage interviews and profiles, sentimental tours back home to Newark, etc. Is there a difference between how Roth is regarded in the “popular press” vs. how he is treated in academic scholarship?
DG: There is, yes. Literary studies is now so fragmented that I wouldn’t dare attempt to characterize Roth’s place in academic scholarship in general. But there has definitely been an explosion of academic writing on Roth in recent years that has really revolutionized the particular field of “Roth studies.” The last ten years have seen the birth of the Philip Roth Society, as well as their journal, Philip Roth Studies, and the publication of more than a handful of truly excellent monographs devoted to Roth. It’s now quite a crowded field.
What this means is that there is now a wide variety of critical perspectives brought to bear on Roth’s writing. He is no longer the exclusive property of scholars of American Jewish writing, who had him nearly all to themselves for decades. In many ways, this flourishing of critical writing on Roth has been a good thing, opening up the field to make it a far more interesting area. It must be said, however that, just as in the popular press, there has been a disproportionate amount of academic attention given to the more recent works (from American Pastoral forward), with the previous decades’ books still suffering from relative neglect.
BH: What do you think Roth’s attitude toward literary scholarship is?
DG: I don’t think it’s positive. At some point over the years, it seems that Roth’s distaste for the reviewers of his books in the press bled into a general distaste for anyone who writes about literature. There’s an interview he did with David Remnick of The New Yorker in which he compares academic literary criticism, and its stereotypically far-fetched interpretative schemes, to a child attending a baseball game and cheering or booing based on how many times the scoreboard changed. “Is that politicizing the baseball game? Is that theorizing the baseball game? No, it’s not having the foggiest idea in the world what baseball is.”
I wonder if this disapproval is related to the tendency in Roth’s books for the narrative voice to do the interpreting for readers. This has become something of a trademark for Roth, the blast of prose that interrupts the sweep of narrative to hammer home the meaning of what we’ve been reading. I’m thinking of this in The Plot Against America:
Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as “History,” harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.
Or this bit from American Pastoral:
The fact remains 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.
You can find these in most of Roth’s books, particularly the later ones. The voice is almost hectoring in its insistence on dispensing meaning. And so I wonder if Roth’s disdain for academic criticism boils down to the fact that he’s already told us what the books mean.
(This is an attitude, by the way, he shared with Bellow, whose letters are full of cheerfully vicious complaints about all the critics who—as he wrote to Roth—“have none of that ingenuous, possibly childish love of literature you and I have.”)
BH: In the last few years, the list of Roth’s books that appeared at the front of each new novel went from being listed chronologically to being grouped: the Zuckerman books, the Kepesh books, etc. What do you make of this self-classification? Do you think it comes from Roth or the publisher?
DG: I think it has come from Roth, who has demonstrated a keen awareness of the shape of his œuvre from very early on in his career. Again, I’d come back to Roth’s tendency to do the interpreting for readers in advance, and his very writerly appetite for control over the way he’s read and discussed. For all that he has expressed his loathing of literary criticism, he has always been a very astute and forceful interpreter of his own work. If you read Reading Myself and Others, his collection of interviews and essays, you’ll find some very eloquent arguments for understanding his work in certain ways.
One of the things I talk about in the book is the comedy that comes from seriousness; this is what I argue to be the key to the breakthrough of Portnoy’s Complaint: Alexander Portnoy is funny precisely because he takes himself so seriously. In my chapter on Portnoy I connect that seriousness to Roth’s own sense of seriousness as a writer, which is on display in just about every word he wrote in the sixties. It’s really difficult to overstate the fervency of the young Roth’s commitment to the sanctity and purity of literature. Roth makes this connection explicit in the first Zuckerman cycle, in which one of the key elements is Zuckerman’s sense that his celebrity—his reputation as a writer in America—falls somewhat short of his lofty literary ideals. I touch on this in my book, but a forthcoming essay by my friend Loren Glass goes further. He argues that the whole Zuckerman saga is, in one sense, a way for Roth to play out, in fiction, all of the conflicts and dramas and anxieties that accompany a writer’s thoughts about the shape of his career and his posthumous reputation. Zuckerman is so attuned to the cavernous chasm between the reverence he feels for James and Kafka and Flaubert and the way his fame manifests itself in fallen, sordid, late-twentieth-century America.
This is a very longwinded way of saying that it’s not surprising that Roth would go to great lengths to try to influence his own legacy. I’ve got no problem with his attempts to do so, but I do think there’s a danger that critics accept the classifications too easily. There may be an argument that the last four books should be read as a tetralogy, but I’d like to see critics make that argument, rather than just fall back on the fact that Roth has labeled them as such.
BH: How sincerely or ironically do you think we should take Roth’s self-interpretations? If, on the one hand, he is shaping his own oeuvre with how he groups his previous novels, but if, on the other, he seems to dramatize different questions/different answers in his novels, should we take the “hectoring insistence on meaning” at face value? Is this a naive question?
DG: I certainly don’t mean to say that we should take Roth at his word, or that interpretation should stop once we figure out what Roth thinks the books mean. And Roth has certainly proven himself to be an unreliable interpreter of his own work (he insisted in interviews, for instance, that the events narrated in Operation Shylock were entirely true).
There are a few things at work here. Roth is such a self-conscious writer, someone so aware of the canon(s) around him, that he can’t seem to help but try to place each book for the reader. Remember that he taught literature for decades; Roth the professor is never too far away, I think. There’s also the fact that, at least when we’re talking about the Zuckerman novels, some of this is just realism–the narrator is a writer, whose job is to think about narrative meaning.
But yes, I think that we need to be careful when reading Roth not to get too won over by that pushy intelligence, and try to retain some semblance of interpretive independence.
BH: There’s been a great deal of debate in the past few years about what constitutes “literary nonfiction” or “creative nonfiction,” what liberties with fact it should or shouldn’t take, how it should comport itself with regard to its claim to be “truthful,” etc. (I am thinking specifically of David Shields’s book Reality Hunger and Jonathan Lethem’s essay “The Ecstasy of Influence.”) Have you followed any of this debate and do you think Roth has anything to say about the differences between nonfiction vs. fiction writing?
DG: I think there’s plenty in Roth that is relevant to the debate, though probably not over the last fifteen years or so. For years this discussion sort of swirled around Roth’s books, but in a way that was tiresomely married to the fanciful idea that fiction writers construct their novels out of thin air—that any elements of the writer’s “real life” that made their way into the books were a sign of laziness, or of insufficient imaginative power. So critics would bash Roth for “only writing about himself”; this is the message we’re meant to take from Irving Howe’s famous takedown of Roth in 1972, seeing Roth’s books as “in the grip of an imperious will prepared to wrench, twist, and claw at its materials in order to leave upon them the scar of its presence.”
But one of the things I really like about the four books Roth published from 1988 to 1993—The Facts, Deception, Patrimony, and Operation Shylock—is that they took this “debate” out of the academy, away from the gossipy interest in which parts are true and which parts are fiction, away from the rather pointless emphasis on generic classification, and gave the issues real ethical import. These books grapple with the real effects that writing can have on those written about, effects that vary considerably if the writing is considered fictional or non-fictional. And so, in The Facts, we have a fictional character calling out the real author for being insufficiently harsh in writing about an old girlfriend because he’s afraid of hurting her feelings. Or there’s the last thirty pages or so of Deception, which concern the purported consequences that the publication of the book we’ve been reading—a book that reads like non-fictional transcription—will have on the (real?) people we’re reading about. Each of these books gains its power by pointing outward, charting the passage of words on the page from the writer’s notebook to the world outside, where real people will read them and make of them what they will.
Just think about James Frey, who always seems to come up in these discussions. James Frey didn’t get into trouble because people were aghast that a writer might fictionalize parts of an autobiography. The scandal wasn’t about the sanctity of a literary genre. Frey’s mistake, the reason he got into trouble, was that he let his book be chosen by Oprah. The moment he left the realm of writing and entered the world of the televised talk show and the pseudo-therapeutic book club, it became about him rather than about his book. And once it’s about him, the self he’s selling to the public, that self better hold up under scrutiny. He sold the public a false bill of goods, and that public felt deceived. And I think that’s instructive, actually. I’m with Lethem on this—who cares whether the words on the page came from the smithy of your soul or from something you read? It’s an academic discussion, in both senses. What’s really interesting is what happens to the words on the page when they start affecting people outside of books.
BH: Roth has been almost unanimously praised for every book he has released after American Pastoral. What do you make of this late career resurgence and its treatment in the press?
DG: As many have noted, it is highly unusual for an author to continue making great work into his sixties and seventies. So I understand that part of the equation. But I don’t buy the premise that Roth had reached some kind of dead end in the mid-90s that the American Trilogy saved him from. To have a resurgence you need to have had a low point, and I just don’t see where that was. I actually think the decade and a half or so that preceded American Pastoral, say, from The Ghost Writer through Sabbath’s Theater, is a much stronger period than the fifteen years since American Pastoral came out. That’s not to say that it’s unwelcome to see the press praising what are generally praiseworthy books; it’s just curious that the praise is always framed in this way that undervalues much of an extraordinary literary career.
I often joke that the literary establishment felt bad for writing Roth off after Operation Shylock (which was seen as a huge failure), and so is making up for it with this stretch of uncritical acclaim. But more seriously, I do think there’s a sort of “Lifetime Achievement Award” effect here. Critics generally see Roth as one of the last remaining survivors of what’s left of the American literary century, and so his books get a pat on the back as a sort of tribute to his role as exemplar of a dying world. The books deserve better, if sometimes harsher, treatment.
BH: What do you think of Roth’s latest phase, the “death” books?
DG: I think they’re a mixed bag, overall. Although I see how the spare-and-short style suits the books’ content, I’d have liked each of these books expanded, filled in a little. As it is, they feel thin and unfinished to me. I think Everyman suffers from Roth’s choice to keep his protagonist anonymous, and that the choice reflects an insufficiently fleshed-out character. Indignation is a great first half of a book. I think I like The Humbling more than most people, but it too feels skeletal, and unbelievable in parts in a way that nearly never occurs in Roth.
Nemesis stands out to me as head and shoulders above the rest. Whereas the other three read like truncated or hollowed-out novels, Nemesis feels like a true novella to me. As in The Ghost Writer, Roth uses brevity here to foster compression, which helps convey the immediacy and impetuousness of youth. I love the second-person narration of the first half of the book, I love the evocation of forties Newark as well as the summer camp, and I think the narrative twist—the revelation of the narrator, as well as his fate—adds to the book’s wickedly matter-of-fact sense of irony.
BH: What do you make of Carmen Callil’s withdrawing from the Man-Booker International Prize panel in protest of Roth’s presence on the prize’s 2011 longlist, an award which he of course went on to win?
DG: I don’t really care about the decision itself, which is just literary scene politics to me. (Aren’t these awards absurd anyway?) I will say that her comments a few days after the dust had settled—to the effect that North American writers such as Roth receive more than their share of such awards, and that in giving the Booker to Roth the judges missed an opportunity to give publicity to writers of other literary cultures—are totally reasonable and worth serious discussion.
But her initial explanation for quitting, her criticism that Roth “goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book,” reflects the worst sort of critical reading, one that has fairly plagued Roth throughout his career. It’s another iteration of the Irving Howe criticism—that Philip Roth only writes about Philip Roth. Besides being patently false (look at all of the different subjects in recent Roth books: racial passing, the possibility of the U.S. taking a sharp turn to the political right during World War II, the mystery of acting talent, the urban polio outbreaks of the first half of the twentieth century, etc., etc.), it’s an absurd perspective on literature, isn’t it? It assumes that we read books for their subject matter, which is just about the least important factor in my enjoyment of a work of literature. Don’t we come to fiction for more than just “an interesting subject”? Her remarks struck me as small-minded and misguided, a sign that she had either not read the books, or had made up her mind before reading them.
BH: What’s your favorite Roth book?
DG: I always dodge this question and say that I think Roth’s written five bona fide masterpieces: Portnoy’s Complaint, The Ghost Writer, The Counterlife, Patrimony, and Sabbath’s Theater. The more I read The Human Stain, the more I think it may deserve inclusion as well. That all said, if I had to pick a favorite volume of Roth’s work, I’d take Zuckerman Bound in a heartbeat, although I guess that’s cheating.
Barrett Hathcock is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation. His first novel, a series of linked stories called The Portable Son, was published by Aqueous Books in 2011.
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