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. Continue reading

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffery Eugenides

 

Given that the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of “The Virgin Suicides” (Warner Books, 1993, 249 pages) is about to appear in print, now is a good time for another look at a novel that has become a modern classic in American literature.

Set in Wayne County, Michigan, in and around Grosse Point, a suburb of Detroit, “The Virgin Suicides” is steeped in gloom. Since it is narrated, however, with verve and humor, you don’t quite comprehend how sad it is until you’ve read the final pages. You put the book down and that’s when the melancholy grabs you by the soul. Continue reading

All Things All At Once, by Lee K. Abbott

Recently I’ve decided to read and review what are generally accepted as the best short story collections by living American writers. With publication of All Things All at Once (Norton, 365 pages), Lee K. Abbott, widely acknowledged as a “writers’ writer,” has seven collections of stories in print. His work has appeared in some of the most highly regarded literary journals. In addition, his stories have been featured in Best American Short Stories and have won O. Henry awards. This most recent collection features new stories, plus several previously published.
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The Trick of It, by Michael Frayn

 Two professors of literature, old friends, one in England (RD, our narrator), one having emigrated to Australia (R), are writing letters to each other. This suggests one of the many metaphors in The Trick of It (Viking, 1989, 172 pp.): “Forgotten questions and meaningless answers passing each other somewhere over the Indian Ocean at thirty thousand feet—an image of human communication. Of love and literature and life.” So is this an old-fashioned epistolary novel? Far from it. The Trick of It is a marvelous, sparkling-new one-way-epistolary and modern piece of metafiction. I would rank it right up there with Don DeLillo’s White Noise as one of the great comic novels of the twentieth century. Continue reading

Tenth of December by George Saunders

In a recent rant I wrote on the sad state of the contemporary American short story, I railed against what is sometimes known as ‘The New Yorker story,’ that all-too-common pedestrian thing called “domestic literary fiction.” Happily, there are always exceptions to egregious trends, and George Saunders (Tenth of December, Random House,  272 pages), who is a contributor to The New Yorker, is a big one. Exception, that is.

How is his fiction different from the normal, run-of-the-mill domestic stuff—the kind of fiction I can’t stand? A good place to begin would be with a comparison between his Tenth of December and another book of short stories recently published, The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I picked up Nguyen’s book with high expectations, having read his novel, The Sympathizer, which has great writing, wonderful sentences on every page.
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The New Yorker short stories

THE GREAT AMERICAN BOONDOGGLE
(The Sad State of the American Short Story)

The situation has been the same for years. Nothing ever seems to change and practically no one deems it necessary even to talk about it. Almost forty years ago a colleague at the university where I taught, a lifelong reader of The New Yorker and a person whose intelligence I respect, said to me, “I love The New Yorker, but I never read the fiction. ‘The New Yorker story’ does not appeal to me.” In a visit to my general practitioner a month ago, the doctor, an avid reader of classical literary fiction—the canonical literary works of the world—remarked, “I love the articles in The New Yorker, but I never read the fiction. Most of it is a total bore.” Over a period of forty years how many other intelligent readers of fiction have said the same thing? Repeatedly. Why is nobody listening? Continue reading

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

In Julian Barnes’ novel, The Sense of an Ending (Penguin Random House, 2011), we meet a narrator in the long tradition of the sad-sack loser telling his story. Anthony (Tony) Webster, resident of London, now in his sixties, looks back on his life from present time. The novel begins as Tony recalls his days as a student, a time when his life appeared to have a good deal of promise. We meet him as a teenage schoolboy in a public boys school—“public” being the British for “private”—pondering, along with his best friends Alex and Colin, certain grand philosophical issues, such as What is history?
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