November 03, 2009



This raises a question that comes up more often in the case of movie stars: When should you just stop? When should Harrison Ford stop taking his shirt off? When should Philip Roth just put the pen down? Particularly when he's been mining the same fictional veins for 50 years? It's clear that Roth's sensibility hasn't evolved with the times, that he's stuck in a 60s view of sex and male/female relationships, that makes his work seem very dated and irrelevant.

There certainly have been writers who remained vital well into old age (Dickens is the obvious example), but I don't think Roth is a member of this group.


To say one can't relate to an author's sensibilities, and to say those sensibilities are not worth exploring in fiction, are two very different things. I haven't yet read The Humbling, but for this reader, at least, Roth could pen another 30 novels for another 50 years and nothing could make me happier.

Part of what astonishes me about Roth, besides the fact that I think he's incredibly underrated on a sentence level, that is, he's one of the best pure tellers of a story who still manages to make the transmission of that story *sound* beautiful, is how he is forever finding new ways of mining what is a superficially narrow range of material.

(And for what it's worth, his sex-obsessed work is actually among my least favorite, however good he is at it. I'm more of a "writer-in-the-world, Jew-in-America, Jewish-American-in-Israel kind of guy.)


Except I didn't say I couldn't "relate to his sensitiblities", whatever that means. I just pointed out that his point of view on issues like sex is very and obviously dated, which limits the impact he can have on a modern reader. And whether a paricular sensibility is "worth exploring in fiction" is entirely a question of whether that sensibility can be made relevant to the readers the writer is trying to talk to. In the same way that a writer may be trying to explore the loftiest themes, but if she can't make those themes compelling or realistic to a reader, she fails, regardless of how intrinsically interesting those themes may be in the abstract.

The sensibility of an aging dirty old man may in fact be totally worth exploring. And I think a writer like Michel Houellebecq does it very well. Roth doesn't. Sorry.


Well, "very and obviously dated" according to you and the thousands and thousands of readers who make his every novel a bestseller, presumably.

Not that I like to point to sales, but there's a distinct disconnect here between a clearly subjective opinion and a statement (dressed up as a question) saying that Roth should just put down the pen already -- that he doesn't have it anymore and come on already, can't the guy take a hint? What I think you mean, and feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, is that, for you, Roth never had it. And it's frustrating to you that he seems to be doing the same thing (which is arguable) 40 or so years later, and, Tablet review and assorted others notwithstanding, he's still praised and revered by critics, readers, and writers alike.


Phineas, I don't hear Niall saying anything about Roth never having had it - not sure where you get that. Bt based purely on what Niall has actually said here, I have to say I agree with him, to an extent. Roth's last few books have been utterly forgettable - and whether tens of thousands of people buy them out of reflex or loyalty or veneration is besides the point, as you suggest. I think it's obvious from both the content and frequency of these last short books that Roth is terrified of the end, running as fast as he can, trying to keep the lights burning until the last minute. But I find myself wishing he'd gird himself for one more BIG book - even if it took a few years to finish, as opposed to these annual afterthoughts - and leave us with something on the order of Sabbath's Theatre or The Human Stain. I don't expect these last works to loom especially large in the end.


Phineas, I am old enough to have read Portnoy's Complaint when it first came out. To remember how fresh and funny and engaged he was with the huge changes occurring in our culture then. He was absolutely a live wire. He certainly "had it" then. In the same way Woody Allen did when he made "Sleeper" and "Annie Hall". And, just as later Woody Allen fails to convince on so many levels (Broadway Danny Rose being the major exception here), Roth has lost the thread.

I would hope from Roth something very concentrated, compelling and new. Not a rehash of what made him famous 40 years ago. It's as though Woody Allen kept remaking "Annie Hall" except with lesbians and aging professors of literature.


Perhaps I read something into Niall's comments that wasn't there, and perhaps I was being defensive - it wouldn't be the first time (and lord knows why I think Roth needs a defender). But to say that Roth has not evolved, has, in fact, been stunted since the 60s and, more to the point, is unable to reach the "modern reader" and has therefore become irrelevant - this seems to me a bit much. I'm a "modern reader," and I think I can decide for myself who and what to read, and I have, and often it's been Roth, and I'm glad he's still writing. American Pastoral, The Human Stain, The Plot Against America: these are not so long ago, after all.

Moreover, Niall didn't seem to be saying that Roth's last few books have been forgettable and that he wished Roth would get back to something more substantial - a wish, by the way, I share wholeheartedly, as I noted in a comment in the post on Tina Brown's interview a week or so ago.

I don't disagree with the point that Roth seems to be running as fast as he can, that he's become a man fixated (it wouldn't be the first time); and I certainly don't disagree with Niall's point that what matters, ultimately, is whether a writer can make his subject compelling, the nobility or loftiness or intrigue of that subject be damned. I was taking issue with the fact that Niall was taking for granted the consensus that Roth could no longer be compelling - either hadn't been ever, or at any rate not for a very long time. And my point was that, to me, and to countless others, he still is compelling, and so to say that Roth should give it up already seemed, very obviously, like one man's opinion, and a rather narrow one at that.


Niall, point taken, and when I posted my recent comment I hadn't had a chance yet to see yours.

And I guess in a way I've fallen victim to a circumstance beyond my control, but something I should have considered more completely anyway: I am not old enough to have read Portnoy's Complaint when it came out, not by a long shot, and so the book and Roth's oeuvre generally is still relatively new to me, still fresh - though not, I imagine, how it was to unsuspecting readers when it really was new, and was truly fresh.

All that said, I still that if the man wants to write, he should write. Though the themes of something like American Pastoral may not have been totally new in the 90s, when it came out, his accounting of time he was writing about after all those years was, for me at least, incredibly worthwhile.

Hank R

Over the years I have really, really tried to enjoy Philip Roth's ouevre, but time and again I find myself disappointed. He has always struck me as a writer with very little to say thematically. Which is all fine and good if said writer condenses those themes into two or three exceptional novels. But Roth's catalogue is exhausting. I have no desire to read any of the Exit Ghost/Everyman/Indignation/Humbling strain because not only do they all sound similar but they all sound like some of his previous, more accomplished novels, of which I can't say I'm a huge fan.

I suspect I'm in the vast minority here, but my favorite Roth is The Great American Novel, and I can say it's the only novel of his I have truly enjoyed. For some reason I keep going back to him though. Not even sure why.


Phineas, two points:

I'm not really talking about whether I like or enjoy Roth, or whether it is possible for others to like or enjoy reading Roth. I'm asking a different question, namely: Is Roth's recent output commensurate in quality and relevance to what we would expect from a writer who is routinely lionized as a master of the art, and a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature? If Roth is going to pose as all that, it's perfectly legitimate to ask if he really is all that.

It's the difference between asking, "Do you like watching Scorsese's recent movies?" and "Does Scorsese's recent output justify his lofty position in the pantheon of American directors?" It's entirely possible for someone to answer "Yes" to the first question and "No" to the second.

Second, of course Roth can continue writing. But that doesn't mean people have to continue to like what he writes. Much as Harrison Ford can still take roles as a romantic lead, but that doesn't mean young women have to continue finding him convincing in that role.


For my part, I'm a big Roth fan but--since the resurgent trilogy, Sabbath's Theater 90s--he's mostly restricted himself to these repetitive novellas.

For my part, the big disappointment was Exit Ghost. That this weak book was the conclusion to the Zuckerman books was really hard to take. There were all these implications in Am. Pastoral, Communist, and Human Stain, that Zuckerman's retreat into the hills had somehow changed him. Not made him "better" but made him something else.

Yet this was nowhere in evidence in Exit Ghost. A real disservice to that character.


Drew, I have to agree about Exit Ghost. I was abroad when it came out and was able to snag a pb copy before it had come out in the States, and, as someone who holds Zuckerman Unbound in the highest esteem - The Ghost Writer is a short classic, and the following two novels represent some of the funniest writing in fiction I've ever read - I was massively disappointed. I remember reading, at the time, a bunch of reviews that drew parallels between E.G. and Ghost Writer, and how perfectly it was a mirror to that original novel, and I thought, Right...but did it work?

It does seem, however, to fit in perfectly with this late-stage Roth: a man frantically trying to keep going, to tie up loose ends, to get some kind of worthwhile closure. And I by no means disliked the idea of a "final" Zuckerman novel, in which he's once again the focus, but I too felt it was a disservice.

I remember reading the book in two sittings, not because I couldn't put it down but because I kept eagerly waiting to get to the part where it all started making sense, and sadly, it never did.

And upon further reflection, Niall's points do seem quite apt when it comes to a book like that. And yet I still hold out hope....


At what age should blog commenters stop commenting on blogs? This is the key question of our times. Niall's retrograde statement of 7:46 a.m. on Nov. 4 seems stuck in the unevolved sensibility we all shared at 10:00 a.m. Nov. 3.


Oh Patti, you're hopelessly stuck at 10:51 am today. When should meta-commenters stop meta-commenting?


The comments to this entry are closed.


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