Sunday, March 31, 2013

Philip Roth: The Greatest Living American Writer?

On Friday night I watched a PBS special about Philip Roth. OK, I will confess: I dozed off halfway into it. The show consisted mainly of a tight focus on Roth talking – the “talking head” mode. Maybe I am shallow, or maybe I was just tired, but it wasn’t enough to engage my attention fully. But I also suspect that my dozing was a kind of unconscious resistance to the premise of the show (presented as if it were a universally accepted truth), which was that Roth is the U.S.’s “greatest living writer.” I agree that he is a great writer, but is he the “greatest”? A few years ago, before the deaths of Bellow and Updike, Roth was often bracketed with them as the greatest living writers. And yes, the other two were great as well. But, again, the greatest? And – perhaps this is the crux of the matter with me – greatest for whom? And where are the lists that include some of our outstanding American women authors? Where are Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Jane Smiley, or Anne Tyler, to mention just a few of the leading writers of our time? But the issue isn’t just the gender of the writers; it is also the “gender” of the fiction itself. By this I mean that Roth’s novels, for example, are heavily, intensely, and unapologetically from the male perspective, focusing on male characters, male topics and male obsessions. Although I admired and read his earlier novels, I long ago stopped reading him because I felt so little connection to them. (I did try again a couple of times over the years, but never could get engaged enough to continue reading.) I realize I am getting into controversial and dangerous waters here, and of course the discussion of gender in literature (about which I have posted several times here already) is contentious and complex. But circling back to the original point: is Philip Roth really the greatest living American writer? I am not at all convinced.

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