An Open Letter to Philip Roth
My dear Mr. Roth,
Say it ain’t so. The news that you have decided to retire from the “awful field” of writing fiction is terribly upsetting. Not because your readers and critics might have paid more respectful attention to Nemesis, or might have read it differently, if they’d only known that it was going to be your last book. (Absolutely everyone managed to overlook the concluding sentence of the biographical note on your dust jacket, which mentioned that the last volumes of your work in the Library of America were “scheduled for publication in 2013.” At all events, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, your publisher, has confirmed that it is true.)
No, the sad thing is that the world of books and learning—especially the outlying province that is dedicated to Jewish books and learning—has just gotten smaller and less interesting. “[I]f I write a new book it will probably be a failure,” you were quoted as saying. “Who needs to read one more mediocre book?” That a mediocre book by Philip Roth is a near-great book by anyone else—that your failures are among your best books—isn’t something you are allowed to say, and wouldn’t change your mind even if you believed it. By all accounts, you have been worn out, at the age of 79, by the daily struggle to find the right words for what, in The Counterlife, you called “the kind of stories that people turn life into, the kind of lives that people turn stories into.”
Apparently you have stuck a Post-It on your computer: “The struggle with writing is over.” But your struggle was never just to write. A man may write at any time, as Dr. Johnson told Boswell on their tour of the Hebrides, if he will set himself doggedly to it. Plenty of men and women have written doggedly without much to show for it. Yours was the struggle to accept the moral obligation to write well. From the beginning of your career, you understood that a good writer shoulders a double burden. Not only must he, like the research scientist, make sure that what he says corresponds to experience. This is only one sense of getting it right. He must also, and this obligation the scientist need not undertake unless there is an extraneous literary dimension to his research, get it right in graceful uncompromising language.
This double obligation—both to truth and to beauty, for lack of better words—is what distinguishes the good writer. And no writer has been as successful as you—as steadfast, for so long, through so many books—at living by the insistence upon getting it right. The refusal to approximate, the denial of propositional and stylistic vagueness, has been your fury.
In American Pastoral, your masterpiece, you despaired of the possibility:
The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that—well, lucky you.
But also: irresponsible you. The moral reality is that no one can dodge the obligation of trying to get other people right (“this terribly significant business of other people,” as you called it), and only lazy writers, those time-servers in the big business of creative writing workshops, think they can get away with the immorality of writing badly.
For the Jews, your retirement is especially bad news. You may not think so, since your relationship with the Jews has been stormy from the first. Goodbye, Columbus was difficult enough for official Jewry to accept, but Portnoy’s Complaint was worse. You were denounced from the pulpit, accused of Jewish anti-Semitism, “not just opposed,” as you put it later in The Facts, “but hated.” A bottom was struck when Marie Syrkin said in a March 1973 letter to Commentary that your descriptions of Jews were “straight out of the Goebbels-Streicher script.”
As is your wont, you faithfully transmuted the hatred into fiction. In The Ghost Writer, the young writer Nathan Zuckerman, whose first story has ruffled his father, receives a letter from Judge Wapter, a Jew in a “position of prestige and authority,” who has been asked to straighten out Mr. Zuckerman’s son. The Judge asks Nathan a series of ten questions:
1. If you had been living in Nazi Germany in the thirties, would you have written such a story?
2. Do you believe Shakespeare’s Shylock and Dickens’s Fagin have been of no use to anti-Semites?
3. Do you practice Judaism? If so, how? If not, what credentials qualify you for writing about Jewish life for national magazines?
4. Would you claim that the characters in your story represent a fair sample of the kinds of people that make up a typical contemporary community of Jews?
5. In a story with a Jewish background, what reason is there for a description of a physical intimacy between a married Jewish man and an unmarried Christian woman? Why in a story with a Jewish background must there be (a) adultery; (b) incessant fighting within a family over money. . . .
Et cetera. These are, in the judge’s words, a fair sample of the aggressive challenges you have received from the Jews over the years. What few of your detractors noticed, however, is how seriously you took the charges. The official Jewish disgust with your work was never, for you, an occasion for satire and derision.
“To me,” you wrote in your autobiography, “being a Jew had to do with a real historical predicament into which you were born and not with some identity you chose to don after reading a dozen books.” In novel after novel, however, your permitted the harshest critics of this view to give a full venting of their counterviews. Voluble Jews—public Jews, believing Jews, scholarly Jews, Zionist Jews—took over your narrative to defend themselves, to make the best possible case for their commitments, and to excoriate the “American-Jewish novelist who steps back and from a distance appropriates the reality [of Jewish life] for his literary purposes.” Sometimes, as in The Ghost Writer, the antagonist even had the better of the argument.
You might not agree with this, but for half a century now you have been the most Jewish Jewish novelist in the world. Nearly all your novels have examined the predicament of Jewish identity—from the perspective of a “bad Jew” or a “decadent Jew,” true, but a Jew nevertheless who is willing to listen to the best reasons for a different way of Jewish life. Nowhere else can a modern Jew witness the full range of Jewish varieties, in the highest intelligence and the best chosen language. Any Jew who is perplexed by the question of how he or she will be a Jew, which means any Jew who is alive, will find the complete transcript of the debate in the pages of your fiction. That you do not give the final answer, but permit every Jewish answerer to speak eloquently for himself, is the ultimate tribute to your greatness—and why so many of us will miss the novels that you might still have written.
Best of luck.
Very sincerely yours,
D.G. Myers is a literary critic and historian with the Melton Center for Jewish Studies at the Ohio State University. Author of The Elephants Teach, he has published essays and reviews in Commentary, the New York Times Book Review, Philosophy and Literature, and elsewhere.
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