“My Life as a Writer….Philip Roth”


Philip Roth in 2012.

This is a must read from subject interview:

You belong to an exceptional generation of postwar writers, who defined American literature for almost half a century: Bellow, Styron, Updike, Doctorow, DeLillo. What made this golden age happen and what made it great? Did you feel, in your active years, that these writers were competition or did you feel kinship — or both? And why were there so few female writers with equal success in that same period? Finally: What is your opinion of the state of contemporary American fiction now?

I agree that it’s been a good time for the novel in America, but I can’t say I know what accounts for it. Maybe it is the absence of certain things that somewhat accounts for it. The American novelist’s indifference to, if not contempt for, “critical” theory. Aesthetic freedom unhampered by all the high-and-mighty isms and their humorlessness. (Can you think of an ideology capable of corrective self-satire, let alone one that wouldn’t want to sink its teeth into an imagination on the loose?) Writing that is uncontaminated by political propaganda — or even political responsibility. The absence of any “school” of writing. In a place so vast, no single geographic center from which the writing originates. Anything but a homogeneous population, no basic national unity, no single national character, social calm utterly unknown, even the general obtuseness about literature, the inability of many citizens to read any of it with even minimal comprehension, confers a certain freedom. And surely the fact that writers really don’t mean a goddamn thing to nine-tenths of the population doesn’t hurt. It’s inebriating.

Very little truthfulness anywhere, antagonism everywhere, so much calculated to disgust, the gigantic hypocrisies, no holding fierce passions at bay, the ordinary viciousness you can see just by pressing the remote, explosive weapons in the hands of creeps, the gloomy tabulation of unspeakable violent events, the unceasing despoliation of the biosphere for profit, surveillance overkill that will come back to haunt us, great concentrations of wealth financing the most undemocratic malevolents around, science illiterates still fighting the Scopes trial 89 years on, economic inequities the size of the Ritz, indebtedness on everyone’s tail, families not knowing how bad things can get, money being squeezed out of every last thing — that frenzy — and (by no means new) government hardly by the people through representative democracy but rather by the great financial interests, the old American plutocracy worse than ever.

You have 300 million people on a continent 3,000 miles wide doing the best they can with their inexhaustible troubles. We are witnessing a new and benign admixture of races on a scale unknown since the malignancy of slavery. I could go on and on. It’s hard not to feel close to existence here. This is not some quiet little corner of the world.

Do you feel that there is a preoccupation in Europe with American popular culture? And, if so, that this preoccupation has clouded the reception of serious American literary fiction in Europe?

The power in any society is with those who get to impose the fantasy. It is no longer, as it was for centuries throughout Europe, the church that imposes its fantasy on the populace, nor is it the totalitarian superstate that imposes the fantasy, as it did for 12 years in Nazi Germany and for 69 years in the Soviet Union. Now the fantasy that prevails is the all-consuming, voraciously consumed popular culture, seemingly spawned by, of all things, freedom. The young especially live according to beliefs that are thought up for them by the society’s most unthinking people and by the businesses least impeded by innocent ends. Ingeniously as their parents and teachers may attempt to protect the young from being drawn, to their detriment, into the moronic amusement park that is now universal, the preponderance of the power is not with them.

I cannot see what any of this has to do with serious American literary fiction, even if, as you suggest, “this preoccupation has [or may have] clouded the reception of serious American fiction in Europe.” You know, in Eastern Europe, the dissident writers used to say that “socialist realism,” the reigning Soviet aesthetic, consisted of praising the Party so that even they understood it. There is no such aesthetic for serious literary writers to conform to in America, certainly not the aesthetic of popular culture.

What has the aesthetic of popular culture to do with formidable postwar writers of such enormous variety as Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, William Styron, Don DeLillo, E. L. Doctorow, James Baldwin, Wallace Stegner, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Penn Warren, John Updike, John Cheever, Bernard Malamud, Robert Stone, Evan Connell, Louis Auchincloss, Walker Percy, Cormac McCarthy, Russell Banks, William Kennedy, John Barth, Louis Begley, William Gaddis, Norman Rush, John Edgar Wideman, David Plante, Richard Ford, William Gass, Joseph Heller, Raymond Carver, Edmund White, Oscar Hijuelos, Peter Matthiessen, Paul Theroux, John Irving, Norman Mailer, Reynolds Price, James Salter, Denis Johnson, J. F. Powers, Paul Auster, William Vollmann, Richard Stern, Alison Lurie, Flannery O’Connor, Paula Fox, Marilynne Robinson, Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion, Hortense Calisher, Jane Smiley, Anne Tyler, Jamaica Kincaid, Cynthia Ozick, Ann Beattie, Grace Paley, Lorrie Moore, Mary Gordon, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty (and I have by no means exhausted the list) or with serious younger writers as wonderfully gifted as Michael Chabon, Junot Díaz, Nicole Krauss, Maile Meloy, Jonathan Lethem, Nathan Englander, Claire Messud, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer (to name but a handful)?

About christian harkness

Photographer and printmaker; living and working in north Florida.
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