Tag Archives: Philip Roth

My Life as a Mannequin

Dear friendly people of the Internet,

Are we still capitalizing “Internet”? I refuse to hyphenate “email” and feel increasingly gooby capitalizing “Web.” Surely all linguistic acceptance leads toward lowercase.

Anyway, I have a new essay out in the world. It’s called “My Life as a Mannequin” and it’s about Philip Roth, getting lost, Washington, D.C., good bookstores, and more Philip Roth. It’s in the latest issue of Open Letters Monthly.

I originally read part of this essay at the Roth@80 Conference in Newark, NJ, this past spring, an event that was put on by the Philip Roth Society in honor of Roth’s 80th birthday. You can read more about the extravaganza in this New York Times’ article.

Do I feel smug linking to a New York Times’ article? Yes, I do.

Anyway, this essay wouldn’t have made it out of the gate if it weren’t for Roth scholar extraordinare and friend and all around badass David Gooblar. If you want to know more about Roth, you should read his book, The Major Phases of Philip Roth.

p.s. For the extra diligent, here is David Remnick’s recap in the New Yorker of the same Roth event.

p.p.s. The essay in Open Letters features perhaps my second favorite Roth photo of all time. My first favorite is the Hot Dog Photo, which I can’t find in my preliminary internet searching (little “i”), but which was definitely included in the recent photo exhibit in the Newark Public Library.

A note from the official interlocutor

Well Philip Roth is in the news again, which must mean it’s time for me to blog once again. This time, Roth has written an “open letter” to Wikipedia to correct a collectively generated mistaken presupposition about the origin of his 2000 novel The Human Stain.

The letter is fascinating and amusing for lots of reasons. (O to have one’s open letters published online in the New Yorker!) On the one hand, Roth gets to correct the record, which he seems intent on doing here in his later years. My last blog post and the last occasion for a newsy flare-up related to the novelist was Roth writing in to The Atlantic magazine to clarify whether or not he in fact had a “crack up” way back when, as the magazine had alleged. Both of these clarifications hit the he-doth-protest-too-much sweet spot, and this last Wikipedia correction in particular strikes one as an older generation being caught in the barbed snares of the younger generation, the mustard gas of Web 2.0 wafting overhead.

But at the same time the letter also provides Roth a “second source,” the item he needs to correct the record on Wikipedia. Here is Roth:

Yet when, through an official interlocutor, I recently petitioned Wikipedia to delete this misstatement, along with two others, my interlocutor was told by the “English Wikipedia Administrator”—in a letter dated August 25th and addressed to my interlocutor—that I, Roth, was not a credible source: “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work,” writes the Wikipedia Administrator—“but we require secondary sources.”

He gets to point out the ridiculousness of the Wikipedian policy while also submitting to it.

This is of course ludicrous—the man’s Philip Roth!—and simultaneously right and correct. Because even though Roth protests that Coleman Silk, the protagonist of The Human Stain, was not modeled on the late literary critic Anatole Broyard, as the Wikipedia comment claimed, we as readers are free to make that interpretive mistake. It’s not like that charge came out of nowhere. That intrepretation—that the black literary intellectual who was “passing” as a Jewish intellectual, which is essentially what Broyard did—has been in critical circulation ever since the novel came out. And as biographically interpretive theories go, it ain’t that bad (or, all things considered, that violent of a conjecture to the author’s reputation or the novel’s aesthetic import). In short, if we, as readers, want Silk to be modeled on Broyard, then he is modeled on Broyard.

But at the same time it’s awfully fascinating to hear Roth go on in a Henry James-ian rumination about the germ of the original novel and to pontificate briefly about the need to make stuff up. In all of the semi-recent internet chatter about fiction vs nonficton vs nonfiction that may perhaps contain some not-quite-verifiably-truthful elements, it’s heartening to see someone so fully committed to making stuff up—where grafting imagined activities onto the root of reality is both a freedom and a burden.

And at the same time the whole thing reads like a scrap from one of Roth’s own novels—the novelist claiming that he is who he says he is despite the Kafkan internet behemoth claiming that’s not good enough, a desperate impotent rhetorical flight of self-validation! Of all the things that Roth’s ouvre has contained, surely that’s a main ingredient of it.

Notes on Notes

I was on Twitter today and I wondered if people tweet about not tweeting, the way that people used to blog about not blogging. And I have been myself thinking of drafting a blog post about my inability to regularly post a blog post, but then I thought christalmightywhocares. There’s nothing to blog about anyway.

But then, I thought of something to blog about, so here we go. I saw on the Atlantic magazine’s website today that Philip Roth had written them a letter disputing Joseph O’Neill’s claim that he had a “crack-up” in the mid-80s. The factual correction is interesting in and of itself. One could imagine the source of confusion, since Roth’s novel Operation Shylock, narrated by a fictional Philip Roth, talks about a breakdown resulting from taking the same true, factual medication Roth mentions in his letter. (Halcion.) On the one hand, you kind of nod your head primly at the fact-checking wrist-slap, but then think, Well isn’t this factual/fictional biographical confusion partly the point?

But more important than that, one reels at the idea that Roth is up there in New England reading Atlantic essays about himself. Did he actually read it? Was he tipped off? Or is it actually not that hard to imagine him reading the Atlantic? I imagine him writing, walking in the woods, lifting weights with dumbbells made of volumes of the OED, and, for some reason, doing a lot of bikram yoga.

I haven’t read the O’Neill essay, mainly because I’ve grown so crotchety and proprietary in my complicated affection for Roth’s books that I’m wary of reading additional criticism. (How’s that for being intellectually stubborn?) However, cynical defense mechanisms aside, I can recommend without reservation David Gooblar’s recent book The Major Phases of Philip Roth. I interviewed Gooblar about the book for the Quarterly Conversation. His book gives you the best kind of scholarly double-pleasure: it shines new light on Roth’s work while sending you speedily back to the books themselves. It’s scholarship as harmony, a dedicated major third humming above the source text.

One last note about that Atlantic piece: it’s illustrated with what must be one of the only pictures of the older Roth with visible beard stubble. He looks — with his stare, his slightly mussed hair, his stubble — old. I realize that he in fact is old, but it seems like the Atlantic is trying to highlight this with the photo. That is, it seems like they’re trying to make him look bad. Perhaps I’m just projecting but this seems to me in poor taste.

But what’s really in poor taste is how they handle the article’s URL. Here’s how they title the article: “Philip Roth Clears Up His ‘Crack-Up.'” But here’s the web address of the article:


Thank you, Atlantic Monthly, for keeping it classy. You must be so proud of yourself.

And with that, I return to my glacial pace of irregular blogging.

Losing Faith with Fiction

I have been mulling over the news that Philip Roth no longer reads fiction. In a profile in the Financial Times, there is the following exchange:

As we talk, Roth is perfectly courteous, perfectly charming, perfectly defended. Half a century of celebrity, since the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969 brought him money and a turbulent kind of fame at the age of 36, has made him a master of the polite no-go sign. The conversation I’d longed to have with him since I first read him many decades ago, a conversation about fiction itself, died an early death.

“I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did.”

How so?

“I don’t know. I wised up … ”

And with those three words he gave me a long look from those fierce eyes and then a significant glance at my notebook, as if to say: that’s what I want you to write down.

So what did he wise up about? On a superficial level, and probably long ago, about the inadvisability of giving anything away when answering journalists’ questions, that’s for sure.

Aside from this moment, the profile is otherwise redundant. All of the information has been so thoroughly catalogued before that the accumulation of words seems unnecessary. No wonder that this statement by Roth received the most attention. But aside from this fleck of gold in an otherwise dry creek bed, the statement seems, if not declared, at least edited to be supremely tweetable. That is, mildly scandalous, gnomicly brief, invested with the shelf life of organic yogurt. And it dutifully sprouted its week’s worth of online mold.

But I’ve kept thinking about it because I think, in its truncated outlandishness, it so disregards Roth’s actual writing. He may no longer read fiction; he may in fact find reading fiction a waste of time. (Geoff Dyer has a great line somewhere where he says that all men eventually only read military history.) This statement actually isn’t that much of a surprise. In interviews over the past several years, as Roth has become an old man, Roth’s said that he’s rereading the classics, perhaps for the last time. A premonition of death seemingly haunts every move he makes–the books he writes, the ones he reads, the plots of his novels, etc. So one doesn’t really expect for Roth to have an informed opinion on that story collection by Miranda July, or the amount of depth to be plumbed in Téa Obreht’s novel.

(Incidentally, I have’t read either of those authors either, but I feel the atmospheric contemporary pressure to have done so.)

But the statement seems to negate what he has done with this life, the way that the news Salman Rushdie is going to work on a TV show and that he thinks TV can be panoramic and sociological in ways the novel no longer can (old news, that), somehow seems to negate the very validity of fiction.

But Roth’s fiction is thoroughly devoted to the fictional, to the idea of the fictional. Or to be more clear: his works are all about making stuff up and about characters who make stuff up, or read books and try to live according to those books, and suffer because of the miscalculation. So much of his mid-career work (the three novels and one novella that comprise Zuckerman Bound) are about the life of an accidentally celebrated author. And his late work takes on various American totemic myths and braids them with individual lives. And one of his best books, The Counterlife, is all about lives re-writing each other, except here it’s not new characters corrupting other characters, but the same characters re-written in multiple ways. The book is a novel bursting into several different novels, characters playing out different versions, different fates. That is, his fiction has been primarily dedicated to this kind of energy, a character’s ability to fictionalize. All of which is a long way of saying that Roth himself may no longer read fiction but the fiction he’s actually written is argument enough for fiction’s value. And not just because it’s “good” fiction, but because the novels argue on behalf of the inescapable need for people to fictionalize. It’s metafiction in the deepest way. It’s not the lighter John Barthian side of fiction, purely investigating the structural conventions of narrative.

I would say that Roth treats fiction on a religious level if he hadn’t stated so clearly that he considers God himself the most supremely harmful fiction.