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  • Joshua Britton

On Philip Roth

This week we lose Philip Roth. I've read 14 Roth books, not quite half of his output. It never takes me long to marvel at Roth's writing ability - usually within 15 or 20 words. He won the National Book Award twice, and the Pulitzer once, but he should've one each several times more.

The first time I read Roth was The Great American Novel, a tongue-in-cheek title - the first sentence is "Call Me Smitty" - made even more ironic by the fact that it is probably his least-read and least-regarded book, though, in his words, "no novel was more fun to write."


Roth almost never dabbled in genre fiction. The closest he came to genre writing was "alternate history" with The Great American Novel (Smitty fights to preserve the memory of a third Major League, the Patriot League to go along with the National and American, despite the government conspiracy to erase the Patriot League from the history books because of its association with communism), more obviously with The Plot Against America (Charles Lindberg is elected president and allies with Hitler; Jonathan Franzen complained about Roth's frequent inclusion of the word "America" in his book titles, including the Pulitzer-winning American Pastoral, genuinely one of Roth's best; Franzen must've been jealous), as well as with The Ghost Writer (in which it is revealed that Anne Frank didn't actually die and was still alive and well in the late 70s - more conspiracies). The Ghost writer is the first of nine books to feature Roth's alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman; the eighth Zuckerman, The Human Stain, is probably my favorite.


What he was far-better known for was his depiction of Jewish family life, which, especially early in his career, drew the ire from the Jewish community. Not being Jewish, all I can really say is that if he depicted white suburbanites from Rochester the same way, I'd be offended, too. He was also just as often accused of misogyny, and probably there is a case for this, as well, except that to my observation his men tend to be just as despicable as, if not more than, his women.


For years his name has been at the forefront of the Nobel Prize In Literature debate, though his death assures he will never win it. Before yesterday, Roth could legitimately be called - and had been called - America's greatest living writer. I thought of that proudly whenever I was reading him, as if I had something to do with it. Although he formally retired from writing a few years ago, his death is still a blow.


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