David Gooblar talks Philip Roth in the Quarterly Conversation

By | March 5, 2012

Everything you could want to know about Philip Roth (and writing about Philip Roth) is covered in this fascinating interview with David Gooblar (author of The Major Phases of Philip Roth) in the Quarterly Conversation. Highlights include:

How did you come to write about Philip Roth? What led you to do this book?

DG: I came to Roth late. I bought a used copy of The Counterlife in the summer before I began my Master’s in London, and by the time I had to start thinking about what to write about for my MA dissertation, I had read all of the Zuckerman books and quite a few of the others as well. I grew up Jewish in New Jersey, which may have something to do with why Roth’s voice on the page connected with me. I just found the books wonderful: funny, full of life, backed by the fiercest intelligence. And I fell in love with Roth’s books at the same time that I was discovering that academic research and writing was something I wanted to do for a living.

My MA dissertation was on The Counterlife as the pivot point in Roth’s career, and I enrolled in a PhD with the idea of writing about self-reflexivity in Roth (I was still drunk on The Counterlife, you see). Eventually I smartened up and dropped the postmodern angle; what resulted was a dissertation that eventually became this book.

What is the book about? How does it approach Roth differently from other critical approaches?

DG: The book is a chronological study of Roth’s career from its beginnings up to The Human Stain (2000). My guiding thesis is that Roth is a writer who refuses to be pinned down. Throughout his career, he has made a sport out of confounding expectations, producing enough kinds of books for a number of literary careers. Many other critics have attempted to define Roth as this or that, as an essentially comic writer, say, or as a writer primarily concerned with masculine subjectivity. I maintain—and I realize this can be seen as a cop-out—that any such limiting definitions of Roth can be met with at least a handful of counter-examples that prove the definition wrong. He has been seen as the scourge of the Jewish-American community as well as its literary ambassador to the world at large. He is often painted as one of the last of the old guard, stubbornly clinging to the exhausted shell of the démodé realist novel, but he has also produced some deeply experimental works, as attuned to the instability of language and identity as the staunchest postmodernist. I would say that he is now as equally known for American Pastoral, an almost entirely po-faced and self-consciously serious reflection on (in part) the failures of mid-century American idealism, as he is known for Portnoy’s Complaint, the obscene and hilarious sex-obsessed novel that made him a household name in 1969. So it’s nearly impossible to say, at this point, what Roth is.

In response to this occupational difficulty, I divided Roth’s oeuvre up into phases, or eras, of preoccupation, to show some of the ways in which he has evaded stasis over the years. This isn’t a perfect approach, and the book is obviously not meant to be definitive, but I wanted to give a sense of Roth’s progression over the years while at the same time showing that what he’s often doing is frustrating the very concept of “progression”. I also wanted to show how Roth—for all that he’s often portrayed as staring deep into his own belly button—has always been very open to the culture around him. And so the book has sections about mid-century American liberalism, the New York Intellectuals, psychoanalysis and its successors, and other historical narratives, because they’re a part of Roth’s story too.

Roth has been almost unanimously praised for every book he has released after American Pastoral. What do you make of this late career resurgence and its treatment in the press?

DG: As many have noted, it is highly unusual for an author to continue making great work into his sixties and seventies. So I understand that part of the equation. But I don’t buy the premise that Roth had reached some kind of dead end in the mid-90s that the American Trilogy saved him from. To have a resurgence you need to have had a low point, and I just don’t see where that was. I actually think the decade and a half or so that preceded American Pastoral, say, from The Ghost Writer through Sabbath’s Theater, is a much stronger period than the fifteen years since American Pastoral came out. That’s not to say that it’s unwelcome to see the press praising what are generally praiseworthy books; it’s just curious that the praise is always framed in this way that undervalues much of an extraordinary literary career.

I often joke that the literary establishment felt bad for writing Roth off after Operation Shylock (which was seen as a huge failure), and so is making up for it with this stretch of uncritical acclaim. But more seriously, I do think there’s a sort of “Lifetime Achievement Award” effect here. Critics generally see Roth as one of the last remaining survivors of what’s left of the American literary century, and so his books get a pat on the back as a sort of tribute to his role as exemplar of a dying world. The books deserve better, if sometimes harsher, treatment.

This is only an extract from the Quarterly Conversation - the complete interview can be read here.

The introduction to and first chapter of David Gooblar's book – The Major Phases of Philip Roth – are available to read, exclusively here, for free. Click on the preview button to the left.

Jenny Tighe

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