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May 19, 2011

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Well said. My single Roth was "The Human Stain". I felt sullied by the end ... and bored too. I suppose that's something not many writers would be able to emulate ...

I'm going to have to read one of his books to see if I agree!

What's good about Roth?

No idea. I read American Pastoral last year and it was agony – the blind ceaseless ranting of an angry old man with no time wasted on any interesting or believable plot or character.

Reading the many grotesquely elongated, repetitious paragraph-length sentences I found myself frequently shaking my head as if this was a trick or a mistake. Surely this couldn’t be the work of America’s Greatest Living Novelist?

I'm not sure who from the short-list should've won (I think Pullman and le Carré are both geniuses), but Roth is not half the writer that John Updike was or that E.L. Doctorow is.

Doesn't he write really dirty sex scenes?

I'm heading out now but I'll try to come back later and expand on why I (mostly) like Roth. Meanwhile a couple of reviews of his books from my blog might, or might not, go some way to explaining his appeal to me:

http://theasylum.wordpress.com/2007/12/19/philip-roth-the-anatomy-lesson/

http://theasylum.wordpress.com/2008/09/22/philip-roth-patrimony/

I won't direct you to any of my reviews as they're mostly of his recent work which I don't think makes the best case for him. Rick Gekoski, the chair of the Booker panel, said that one of the extraordinary things about Roth is that his first book Goodbye Columbus was genius as was his latest, Nemesis. How many writers he asked could manage to maintain that kind of writing quality over so many decades? In that time he has written books that appeal to many different types of readers and that's part of the appeal I think (and the reason why the going 'on and on and on about the same subject' criticism doesn't really hold up for me - but even if it did I can think of plenty of other great writers who could be accused of the same thing!) He can be funny, sharp, political, incisive, brutally honest, sexually explicit and most of all brave. His writing, even in books that you wouldn't think of as the best, is always high quality, well structured and filled with arresting passages.

The books that made me love him as a writer came in a bit of a purple streak. American Pastoral is a work of genius. A book that pierces to the heart of The American Dream and punctures it. A book of politics, violence and domestic battles it is primarily a book filled with the rage of a man who cannot satisfactorily connect with the women in his life (and anyone who knows anything of Roth's personal life cannot help but feel the power in that). I Married A Communist is a savage book on its own before you realise that it is a thinly veiled attack on his marriage to Clare Bloom. Some celebrities use the tabloids to settle their scores, Roth wrote a brilliant work of art! Sabbath's Theatre is a riotous, fearless carnival of expression, literally bursting at the seams with human exuberance. It's filthy, it's beautiful, it's unlike anything else you have read.

Scott, as a man particularly, I feel sure that you would find something in Roth to admire or even adore. Everyman is probably the worst place you could ever have started. If you want the serious side - read American Pastoral. If you want to be entertained - Sabbath's Theatre. They are both utterly brilliant.

There is an interesting debate going on about this subject at Twitter today. More than one person has pointed out that Everyman is not actually all that good, and certainly not his best work, and that it was a shame that I chose that as my starting point.

The thing is, the reviews of Everyman at the time suggested it was a masterpiece. The Times made it their pick of the week, the Observer called it 'capable of altering the way you see the world', the Independent said 'very sentence and every paragraph works with the coiled precision of the watch mechanisms that the narrators father repairs.'

So I read it. And it was dull.

Now, if Roth fans themselves do not think Everyman is as good as all that then why did the reviewers claim it was so wonderful? Is Roth an author who literary editors are wary of giving poor reviews to?

My current dislike of Roth may be more down to false expectations created by fawning reviewers than the author himself.

I've only read "The Human Stain". I loved it, but unfortuantely it was a long time ago and I can't remember a thing about it. I think the fact I've forgotten about it proves it wasn't genius, but it was entertaining at the time.

Stuart Evers has written a blog post today which is far better than my waffle above.

http://stuartevers.blogspot.com/2011/05/i-didnt-think-i-or-indeed-anyone-else.html

The Plot Against America is fantastic. A very clever reworking of a quite plausible alternative America that doesn't overplay the Jewishness of his characters, but users it to make interesting points, and tell a good story.

American Pastoral is a clever book but it does drag towards the end.

Private Eye's first drafts summed it up brilliantly with, "I'm Jewish. I don't really see any mileage in that, so, moving on…"

I can't bear Philip Roth. But never mind; people and books I don't like win prizes all the time. What I find astonishing is that Roth - or anyone - managed to win the International Booker when he only had the support of two out of the three judges. How on earth did that happen? What went on in those meetings? How could two judges completely ignore the wishes of the other judge like that? Did they lock her in a closet when they made the announcement?

I can't help but read some significance into the fact that the two pro-Roth judges were men and the one anti-Roth judge was a woman. One of my principal objections to Roth is that he's vehemently misogynistic. To be fair I've only read a couple of his books (The Human Stain and American Pastoral) but I can't say I'm reassured by William Rycroft's descriptions of his other books, and his assurance to Scott that "as a man particularly" he'd find plenty to enjoy in Roth. We don't ask black people to admire racist writers, so why is there this expectation that women should just suck up the misogyny in these so called great American novels?

Hi Marie. The reason why I said 'as a man' is because my experience in reading Roth was to finally have articulated some of my confusions about being 'a man', of relationships with women, fathers, mothers, of being 'right' but losing the argument anyway. My wife and I both read American Pastoral, both loved it, but both had entirely different readings of the book, and placed our sympathies in different areas. I don't think she mentioned misogyny though and her experience with other books of his was to almost always find the male characters pathetic rather than offensive in their inability to relate properly to women. Could it be that Roth rather than being a misogynist is actually highlighting the failings of his male protagonists, and himself?
I'd certainly be beware of pronouncing someone as vehemently misogynist after reading only two books. It's the default criticism that I hear him being accused of it all the time but seldom with any examples.

Like William, I am very wary of someone being described as a misogynist without any clear indication of why. Does Roth write books which are often from the point of view of men of his age and culture? Yes. Do the characters occasionally display the worst qualities of men in their relations to women? Yes. Does that make him or his books misogynist? No. Why would it?

In response to Marie's other point about disregarding the wishes of one judge, I think this highlights one of the weaknesses of the International Booker. They need more than three judges (though of course that could still result in a 3-2 verdict, which is not uncommon in the annual Booker Prize). It's clear from the judges' reports that Gekoski and Cartwright both thought Roth head and shoulders above any other candidate on the list. So the alternative, giving the award to someone else, would have meant disregarding the wishes of TWO judges. Hardly a better outcome.

It's tricky, the being misogynist / writing about misogyny thing. There are authors who manage it brilliantly - F Scott Fitzgerald, for example. But even Roth's biggest supporters have never trumpeted him as someone who writes with warmth about women. His recurring character Zuckerman is widely accepted as his alter ego in his novels, and therefore we can ascribe some of the sentiments expressed in his books as tallying to his real opinions. I can never read Roth as a man, but you can't read it is a woman, and so it's unlikely that your experience of reading the Human Stain is as mine was:

There are two major female characters. One is a young, beautiful, wild sex beast who finds our far older protagonist irresistible. She is also illiterate. (Or not. But for the bulk of the book she is put forward as such.) The other is a wizened up old crone, who believes herself to the the protagonist's intellectual equal, but isn't. But she's certainly spent a lot of time in academia when she would have been happier in her natural state - on her back with legs apart. Her lust for the protagonist - unrequited, because why would he want an intelligent intellectual woman when he could have a free spirited fuck-monster? - brings him down and also herself. Poor thing. Shouldn't have read all those books.

This is all coming out very angry - I'm not angry with you, William or John. I'm sure you're lovely and not remotely anti-woman. I really, really loathed The Human Stain and I found it truly, vehemently misogynistic. And I feel very threatened when I read a book which I think articulates a real hatred towards women and then I hear men say 'at last, a book that speaks for us!' I find it frightening, to be honest. It makes me feel like men hate me.

We are both lovely (aren't we John?) and not remotely anti-woman and you raise some very valid points about The Human Stain. I'm not the greatest fan of that novel and there is something distinctly Woody Allen about some of Roth's fictions. Old bloke is sexually irresistible to much younger woman who then becomes object of sexual exploration - some of those make me feel uncomfortable.

There's a little discussion about all this in the Observer today which suggests that Roth is certainly anti-feminist:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/may/22/philip-roth-carmen-callil-booker


I tried American Pastoral last year and was very disappointed. Only got about a fifth of the way in

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