On Writing Fiction: The Case of Philip Roth (1933-2018)

“We must read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading does not wake us up with a blow to the head, then what are we reading it for? A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”  …Franz Kafka

Some of the best writers in world literature—Kafka in German, say, Isaac Babel in Russian, Philip Roth in English—are the kind of writers who love to inflict blows to the head of the reader. In so doing they must, however, be ever aware that someone smacked upside the head will yell, and yell loudly.

Nathaniel Rich discusses this issue in regard to Roth (NYRB, March 8, 2018).

Philip Roth had “to defend himself and to explain himself to the paranoid assimilationists of his father’s generation who berated him for ‘informing the goyim that some Jews might not be paragons of virtue and might even possess human qualities.’” Roth told his detractors, “Fiction is not written to affirm the principles and beliefs that everybody seems to hold.” This was in response to the reaction to his story, “Defender of the Faith,” published in The New Yorker in 1959.

Then came Portnoy, who smacked Jewish heads all over the place.

Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) was received like a firebomb thrown into a Hillel House.”

Roth mentions “all those astute book reviewers who are sure that I am the only novelist in the history of literature who has never made anything up.”

More Astute Observations from that Same Article in the NYRB

Fiction Is More Real and True Than Reality

“Everything one [“one” being the creative literary artist] invents is true; you may be perfectly sure of that . . . . . My poor Bovary, without a doubt, is suffering and weeping in twenty villages in France at this very moment.” …Gustave Flaubert

The Fiction Writer Is Most Truly Himself in His Fictional Persona

“Roth is never more himself than when he appears in disguise. The same is true of all great novelists.”

American ‘Reality’ in 1960 and Today

Roth writing in 1960: “The American writer in the middle of the 20th Century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s meager imagination.”

Roth likened living during the Vietnam War to “living on a steady diet of Dostoevsky.”

Nathaniel Rich comments on the above: “Such apprehensions may seem quaint when viewed from the comic-book hellscape of 2018, though it is perversely reassuring that life in 1960 felt as berserk as it does now.”

The Value of Creative Fiction

“What better refuge from the simplifying influence of mass culture than the richness of great fiction, with its openhearted embrace of moral contradiction and emotional complexity? As the shrill hue increases to an insane volume, fiction’s value grows ever more precious” [NYRB, Mar. 8, 2018, p. 38]

U.R. Bowie

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