- Do You Just Love Philip Roth?
“So, do you just love Philip Roth?” I didn’t quite know what to say, a little surprised by the question, coming as it did out of the near darkness from a New Yorkese-speaking stranger at a movie theater. Granted, the film was Philip Roth: Unmasked and the venue was Film Forum (the venerable and wonderful theater on Houston in NYC that has been around almost as long as I have), so I perhaps should not have been all that surprised. I answered something like, “Well, it’s complicated, love isn’t quite the right word.” I was feeling shy and didn’t want to reveal that I was a “Roth scholar,” nor that I was on my way to a Roth conference in honor of the great writer’s eightieth birthday, nor that I was about two-thirds of the way through writing a book on Roth. My interlocutor replied: “He’s a bit of a misogynist.” “So, you don’t love him,” I queried. She nudged her mate, a man, and said, “He does.” The lights dimmed even further and just before the film began one of the cute queer boys behind me said, “I’ve read like seven Philip Roth novels and after a while they all start to blur together.”
So, do I love Roth, and do you? Well, as I told my filmic neighbor, it’s complicated. I have now been reading and working on Roth for many, many years (first book? Portnoy’s Complaint, read in Murray Baumgarten’s Jewish American literature course at UC Santa Cruz in 1987ish), and I have been very, very frustrated at times not only with his problematic (this overused [End Page 187] word is an understatement) representations of women but also with his attacks on feminists, his queasy-making depictions of queer women, not to mention the totemic manner through which black characters are consistently plunked throughout his texts (more on all of this in my book, Jewish Anxiety/Philip Roth). Also not to mention the fact that, were I to review his entire oeuvre (OK, at time of writing I am a few shy of having read all thirty-one novels!), I would say his prose is full of brilliant sentences, turns of phrase, and released neuroses, but he should have redacted more, condensed more, and written less. As Roth himself told us at the conference, “I’m far from liking all the pages I’ve written.” So, do I love Roth? I love his prose, yes, most of his prose I love.
Roth’s announcement in Les in Rocks that “Némésis sera mon dernier livre,” that he was retiring from writing, predated the spectacular Roth@80 conference, but of course the planning of same long predated his surprise retirement (and just as a side note many people at the conference fully expect Roth to write another novel).1 So there was much reference made to this new turn in his long career. The first day of the conference, at the Robert Treat Hotel in Roth’s hometown of Newark, followed a traditional academic format with simultaneous sessions of panels consisting of two or three twenty-minute-ish papers. I heard some excellent essays on queering Roth (David Brauner), Roth’s Newark (Michael Kimmage), Roth and Joyce (David Stone), death and Roth (Debra Shostak), and many other wonderful essays by established and emerging scholars, as well as looser roundtable discussions by Aimee Pozorski, Pia Masiero, Dean Franco, Bernard Rogers, Benjamin Schreier, Ezra Cappell, and others. It was truly marvelous to be in the same room with so many other people who inhabit the same imaginative head space as I currently do and who can get any reference to (or any joke about) any moment in any of Roth’s novels.
But the second day of the conference had an entirely different flavor. The second day began at the glorious Newark Public Library, designed by Rankin and Kellogg and opened as one of the crown jewels of Newark civic architecture in 1901; there, a carefully curated exhibit about Roth ringed the elegant second floor. Photographs...