Philip Roth on the value of serious literature amid the hellscape of contemporary America
Philip Roth, 1973
Here’s Nathaniel Rich, writing for The New York Review of Books about Philip Roth’s Why Write?: Collected Nonfiction 1960–2013:
Between the interviews given in self-defense, the conversations with peers, and the exchanges with angry Jews, there emerges from Roth’s nonfiction a unified theory of the novel as a bulwark against the excesses of modern society. The assaults on the novelist come from two fronts. The first is the social chaos of a nation in political crisis and cultural decline. Roth began to speak about this danger in 1960:
The American writer in the middle of the twentieth 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 own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.
This problem obsessed Saul Bellow too; it was the dominant subject of his nonfiction. “The noise of life is the great threat,” he wrote in 1970, “the sounds of the public sphere, the din of politics, the turbulence and agitation that set in about 1914 and have now reached an intolerable volume.” Bellow worried that the fervor of public life would destroy the private conditions necessary for the creation and appreciation of art. Roth, despite writing before the tumult of the Sixties, went farther, suggesting that a radically destabilized society had made it difficult to discriminate between reality and fiction. What was the point of writing or reading novels when reality was as fantastic as any fiction?
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. American reality continued to overwhelm the imagination during the Vietnam War, which Roth likened to “living on a steady diet of Dostoevsky,” and under the administration of the “grotesque” Richard Nixon, the subject of Our Gang. And in Reagan’s Eighties, dominated as they were by “a proliferation of . . . media stupidity and cynical commercialism — American-style philistinism run amok,” a time when, Roth complained, it became “easier for even the best-educated people” to discuss movies and television shows than literature.
The threat continued in the 1990s, when Roth bemoaned to Ivan Klíma the obliterating influence of “that trivializer of everything, commercial television”; during the administration of George W. Bush (“we are ambushed . . . by the unpredictability that is history”); and in the final years of the Obama administration: “Very little truthfulness anywhere, antagonism everywhere, so much calculated to disgust, the gigantic hypocrisies, no holding fierce passions at bay, the ordinary viciousness you can see just by pressing the remote, explosive weapons in the hands of creeps. . . .” This year, in an e-mail published in The New Yorker, Roth worried about the newest manifestation of this threat: “It isn’t Trump as a character, a human type — the real-estate type, the callow and callous killer capitalist — that outstrips the imagination. It is Trump as President of the United States.”
Toward the end of his career, in his novels and public statements, Roth began to prophesy the extinction of a literary culture — an age-old pastime for aging writers. But in his earlier critical essays, he described literature as not only immune to the incursions of the “mass electronically amplified philistine culture,” but its most powerful antidote. 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. “Where the mass media inundate us with inane falsifications of human affairs,” Roth wrote in 1990, “serious literature is no less of a life preserver, even if the society is all but oblivious of it.” In the current deluge, we have more reason to cling to that preserver than ever before.
Full article: “Roth Agonistes“