Is it too soon to ask who is now America’s greatest living novelist? Philip Roth has been dead since Tuesday, and I’m a little curious as to who is ascending to the throne.
Remember back in the first part of 2016 and the musicians were dropping dead one right after another so fast it was beginning to look as if there would soon be no more senior rockers left to go on ill-advised reunion or comeback tours?
Well, that’s the way it’s starting to feel with the old-guard writers. Philip Roth heading off into the void only eight days after Tom Wolfe gave up the ghost has a certain fast and furious quality to it.
After hearing Roth referred to as “the last of the great white males: the triumvirate of writers — Saul Bellow and John Updike were the others — who towered over American letters in the second half of the 20th century,” first in The New York Times and later pretty much everywhere else, I began to wonder about a few things.
First, what are “American letters”? I have no idea what that means. I think it is a term meant to put off those of us who are not smart enough or educated enough to know what it means, but if that is the case, it is completely ineffective as I have not been put off at all. I have been reading Philip Roth since I first discovered him in high school, and I missed a few of his many books, so his death is not going to slow me down for a while.
And as far as “the great white male” thing, I decided to get some input from a female: Heather Elliot, the smartest, most well-read female I know. Just to be clear, Heather is the smartest, most well-read person I know, but in this instance, it was a female perspective in particular I sought.
After setting me straight on the ridiculousness and imprecision of asking for her opinion “as a woman” in the charming no-nonsense manner that is uniquely Heather’s own, she said, “it’s laughable to think we’re anywhere near the last of the great white males — publishing and criticism are still largely controlled by white men, I imagine, and even if they aren’t, there is a centuries-old tradition of favoring the white male voice and perspective so much that it becomes the standard and the norm.”
Twitter, not known as a genteel platform, offered up some comments that were, not surprisingly, less generous than Heather’s.
In one of the few suitable for quoting in a family newspaper, Sady Doyle explained how Roth achieved iconic status, “Women weren’t assigned to review his books.”
And it’s probably true that not one word Roth ever wrote could pass the Bechdel test.
Did I mention “American Pastoral” is one of Heather’s favorite books? It’s true. I couldn’t say what Sady’s favorite is.
Which leads us to the rather interesting phenomena that everybody who reads Roth has a different favorite of his books. A lot of novelists, maybe most of them, have one book head and shoulders above the rest, and it is the thing on which their reputation rests. But not Roth. Ask 10 readers for their favorite Roth book and you could easily get 10 different answers. You could conceivably get 30 different answers as he wrote 30 books.
Like Heather, many people love “American Pastoral,” and it did win Roth his Pulitzer. But he won other awards with other books. In fact, he won all of the big ones, some more than once, except the Nobel.
I’ve had a hard time with the question of favorite Roth book myself, but I think I’ve got to go early work and choose “Portnoy’s Complaint.” It was an astonishing thing to read as a 14-year-old boy. Great literature has a way of of making us feel commonality, and I, a working class Protestant boy from Elkin, North Carolina, did feel a certain kinship with Alexander Portnoy, a middle-class Jewish boy from Newark, New Jersey. We had certain, shall we say, shared preoccupations, or perhaps obsession would be a more precise word, and that was good to know. Also, several decades later, when a new generation of young folks were enjoying the film “American Pie,” I was happy to point out the literary allusions in the title scene, not that anyone was interested.
Before he died, Roth said he thought novels were nearing the end of their lifespan, as he didn’t think people will have the attention span for them in the future. First film screens, then television screen, and now computer and smartphone screens have each shortened our attention spans, he said. And he’s probably right. With the exceeding abundance of prurient content on the internet, I can’t imagine any 14-year-old kids today putting up with 274 pages (all text, no photos) of Portnoy’s shenanigans in exchange for a little insight into the mysteries of life.
Roth said that the number of people who read novels in the future will probably be larger than the number of people who read poetry in Latin today. But not much larger.
And suddenly I am saddened not just by the death of Philip Roth, but by the impending death of his art form.
There are still a few of us capable of reading more than 280 characters at a time, and I really want to know who is now the greatest living American novelist. The question could be answered on one of those reality shows like “The Voice” or “America’s Got Talent” where the audience votes in a winner, but the only people interested in voting don’t watch those shows. Or at least, don’t admit to watching them.
I certainly don’t. But I would tune in to vote for Donna Tartt.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.