Is Philip Roth a truly great American novelist?

As a Booker judge resigns with a tirade against Philip Roth, Terence Blacker asks if a literary reputation is being rewritten

Terence Blacker
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:48

Like a royal wedding for the forever-young generation, the 70th birthday of Bob Dylan is almost upon us. There are documentaries about this sainted figure. A series of Dylan-related short stories have been commissioned for Radio 4. Endless cover versions are being released by ambitious young folkies. Feature articles , invariably littered with dog-eared quotes – the times they are, the answer my friend, I was so much older then – are appearing in the press. Grizzled old bastards reminisce about the day they met His Royal Bobness back in 1965.

In a different part of the arts establishment, celebrations for another veteran are not going so smoothly.

The Man Booker International has been awarded to Philip Roth, but one of the judges, Carmen Callil, has elbowed her way into the limelight. Mr Roth "goes on and on about the same subject in almost every book", she complained this week as she disassociated herself from the award's judging panel. "It's as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe."

The hoop-la surrounding these two events, the Bob and Phil Media Show, reveal an uncomfortable truth which critics, journalists and the judges of prizes prefer to ignore. In the case of the truly great, the views of cultural bystanders – them, in other words – are almost entirely irrelevant. Ms Callil may feel that Mr Roth has been sitting on her face (not one of the literary world's more attractive images) but the fact is that he will be as indifferent to her opinion as those for whom his writing is a joy.

Every admirer, Cyril Connolly once wrote, is a potential enemy. In their different ways, Bob Dylan and Philip Roth have worked to this credo. Like Mr Roth, Dylan has been assiduous in his determination to put a distance between his work and the outside world. In a celebrity-befuddled culture, this stony self-reliance has inevitably been interpreted as snottiness or eccentricity.

Yet it takes real courage and strength not to play the game, not to be so seduced by the world's view that, over time, individuality becomes softened, institutionalised.

The more Dylan is celebrated as a cultural icon, the less direct his songs begin to feel; when Mr Roth's fiction becomes an argument in the gender war, it becomes less personal, less powerful. An album or a book which is said by the experts to express something grand and general about the age in which we live, is on the way to losing precisely what makes it interesting – its personality.

When Bob Dylan was introduced at a Newport Folk Festival with the words "Take him, he's yours", he felt "ominous forebodings", he wrote years later in his memoir Chronicles. "Screw that. As far as I knew, I didn't belong to anybody then or now... I had very little in common with and knew even less about a generation I was supposed to be the voice of."

No one has accused Philip Roth of being the voice of a generation, but he is famously ascetic is his work habits, and sparing with interviews and the publicity game generally.

As with Dylan, this refusal to be embraced by fame has been regarded as suspect. In Mr Roth's case, the attitudes and opinions of his fictional characters have been attributed to him. He has been accused of going on and on about the same subject, as if worrying away at the same themes is not something every great writer does.

It is the determination of Mr Roth and Dylan not to become a public personality, not to be absorbed into any establishment, which has contributed to their different, but equally astonishing bodies of work.

Dylan translated his favourite Rimbaud quote "Je ex un autre" as "I is someone else". In The Counterlife, Mr Roth's alter ego Nathan Zuckerman reflected similarly, "I, for one, have no self." Perhaps the best way to celebrate these two extraordinary men is not with prizes, parties or documentaries, but simply to read or to listen to them.

What Carmen Callil said...

"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. I don't rate him as a writer at all. I made it clear that I wouldn't have put him on the longlist, so I was amazed when he stayed there. He was the only one I didn't admire – all the others were fine... 'Emperor's clothes': in 20 years' time, will anyone read him?"

... and what the literati think of him

Lionel Shriver, novelist

I'm not that touchy about misogyny as long as it's well-written misogyny. his body of work does on average rise to a very high bar, and that's what the Mann Booker is meant to reward.

True, much like John Updike's, Roth's female characters are not nearly as filled out as his male ones; sometimes his women amount to little more than bodies or, when ex-wives, walking mistakes. He can still write a sentence, and continues to engage with big issues, especially, lately – and understandably, given his age – death.

Whether or not there are exceptions – The Humbling was ghastly – we all get the odd free pass, and Philip Roth deserves this award.

DJ Taylor, author and critic

I can certainly see that if I were a woman I'd have trouble with some of Roth's early work in particular but then you'd also have trouble with, for example, early John Updike. Both men are reflecting the attitudes of the society in which they've lived.

It's fair to say that all serious writers end up writing the same book, which is one of Carmen's complaints. Sure he keeps to the same themes and produces the same effect. So did Tolstoy. But at his best with, I would say American Pastoral, Roth is one of the great modern American novelists.

Amanda Craig, novelist

I have such mixed feelings about Roth. I love his black wit, his aphoristic style, his insistence on honesty. Yet I hate the way I have to steel myself to read him, hate his misogyny and hate always feeling worse at the end of his books than I did before I started them. Roth doesn't offer any hope, and that suggests that Carmen is right – he won't last.

Rowan Pelling, former editor of 'The Erotic Review'

I have sympathy for Callil because when he was nominated for the Bad Sex Awards for converting a lesbian to heterosexuality in The Humbling, there was this feeling of "Oh God, enough already." I think she is right that if you had to sit there and read the whole oeuvre you'd feel like you've covered in a whole gush, but there is individual genius to some of them. I did enjoy the earlier books and where I think Callil is wrong is this idea that he won't be read later on.

Fay Weldon, novelist

Roth is, I must gently say, rather old-fashioned about women. He investigates their mental and emotional processes as if they belonged to some entirely different species from his own, not merely to a separate gender.

From a review of 'Deception', published in the 'New York Times'

Vivian Gornick, US critic

The misogyny in Roth's work seemed less and less a function of character, and more and more an indication of the author's own swamped being.

From 'Harpers'

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