Philip Roth, Still In Denial

Even after all these years, Philip Roth refuses to be classified as a Jewish writer. In a generally fascinating interview with a Danish journalist promoting “The Plot Against America” (only recently released in Denmark), Roth fights the label with his typically cantankerous passion.

Jews appear everywhere in Roth’s books, but this one seems to be Roth’s great Jewish history. “Jewish?” he says. “It’s my most American book. It’s about America. About America. It’s an American dystopia. You would never tell Ralph Ellison that Invisible Man is his most Negro book, would you?” He looks at me. “Would you?”
“Maybe not …”
“Those kinds of considerations are newspaper cliches. Jewish literature. Black literature. Everyone who opens a book enters the story without noticing these labels.”
“But you are seen as an American-Jewish writer. Does that mean anything to you?”
“It’s not a question that interests me. I know exactly what it means to be Jewish, and it’s really not interesting. I’m an American. You can’t talk about this without walking straight out into horrible cliches that say nothing about human beings. America is first and foremost … it’s my language. And identity labels have nothing to do with how anyone actually experiences life.”

Damn, Philip, relax already! We know you grew up in a different climate, but the Swedish Academy won’t take too much offense if you at last admit the truth: Your books are Jewish books by a Jewish writer — and that’s not a bad thing in the least.
Full interview.

7 thoughts on “Philip Roth, Still In Denial

  1. yup yup, gotta keep that social capital in line wouldn’t be letting barrels of oil decide theys isn’t barrels of oil! nope, no way no how.. human beings aint much more than another kind of natural resource ya know!

  2. yeah, what it sounds like he’s saying is, it is wrong to consider books meant for humanity-at-large to be “Jewish books” as much as a book as much about the black experience in america as “the invisible man” would be limited and misunderstood if it were labeled a negro book.
    Because, maybe it is wrong, or at least shallow and/or limiting for a writer to write a book with only his clique, family, or gang in mind, or at least, to make it a “our kinda” book instead of a book coming from us.

  3. This is an interesting topic – I think Roth is speaking of the order of his multiple identities.. like all of us he has many labels.. he’s human, he’s a man, he’s Jewish, he’s American, he’s of European descent, he’s a native of New Jersey
    But which of these labels takes precedence over the others in his mind? Is he human before he’s a man? Is he Jewish before he’s American? Does his American citizenship take precedence over his birth in New Jersey ?
    I can relate to these questions, if that is what Roth is referring to

  4. I agree — it’s wrong to ghettoize Roth as “merely” a Jewish writer, because his writing is at once Jewish, American and universal. But for a long time, Roth has bristled at the suggestion that he’s a “Jewish writer.” I went to a Jewish Book Awards ceremony a few years ago when he received the award. He didn’t show up but somebody read a statement by him in which he basically said that his novel was a novel about America — almost over-defensively, given that this was the Jewish Book Awards. True, part of this is justifiable annoyance at being pigeonholed. But I’ve also gotten the sense that Roth, like many in his generation who grew up in a different era than ours, wanted/wants to be considered first and foremost an American (despite focusing his fiction overwhelmingly on cultural Jewish characters/issues/theme s). I think the style if not the content of his early works reflects this urge to fly by his particularist nets. The tension no doubt fuels some of his best works, but it also makes him somewhat less than forthcoming when he’s cornered into talking about those works. (You know, as Roth himself might say, we can’t trust the author.) I think if he were an emerging writer today, Roth wouldn’t bristle so much at the label, because it wouldn’t have the less-than-equal connotations the label had in the 1950s.

  5. I think Roth has a very deep appreciation for what it means to be an American and he has chosen to adopt that as his primary identity. Obviously what he is saying is that Judaism as he has understood it, has contributed very little to his identity as an author – ie. “it is not interesting to me”. This may be difficult to take for some in the Jewish community who understandably want to lay claim to him, but it is reality and should be accepted as such. Unfortunately, the “American” contribution to the human identity of many Jews such as myself is largely under underappreciated in the community so some of Roth’s comments may be reactionary. G-d bless.

  6. Personally, I think he has the right to identify himself however he’d like to, but I think that a “Jewish writer” is somebody who chooses to write largely about Jewish religion and culture. Since Roth fits that bill, I don’t see why he reacts so much against that designation.
    “You would never tell Ralph Ellison that Invisible Man is his most Negro book, would you?” I think if an interviewer didn’t ask Ellison about race, he wouldn’t be doing his job. If I wrote book after book about gardening, I wouldn’t be offended if somebody asked me about topsoil.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.