An Open Letter to the Swedish Academy

September 29, 2011 | 4 books mentioned 52 7 min read

Esteemed Members of the Swedish Academy:

Can we please stop the nonsense and give Philip Roth a Nobel Prize for Literature before he dies?

For your consideration, I present to you the Library of America edition of The American Trilogy, out just this week. The coincidence, I grant you, is a touch unseemly. One can’t help wondering if the board of the LOA chose this week to publish its handsome $40 omnibus edition of Roth’s three best-known late novels in the hope that you, the esteemed members of the Swedish Academy, would award him the Nobel Prize in Stockholm next week, allowing the LOA to bring in enough cash to float yet another edition of Henry James’s Desk Doodles. But don’t let that sway you. Just consider the work.

The opening of American Pastoral, the first book of the trilogy, with its effortless conjuring of the age of American innocence during the Second World War, is enough by itself to warrant at least a Nobel nomination. The book begins with an extended reverie about “steep-jawed…blue-eyed blond” Seymour Levov, star athlete of Newark’s tight-knit Jewish community, and a Jew who excels at all the things Jews of that era aren’t supposed to be good at: playing ball, being glamorous, loving themselves. By being “a boy as close to a goy as we were going to get,” Seymour Levov, nicknamed the Swede, offers his neighbors, only “a generation removed from the city’s old Prince Street ghetto,” a home-grown avatar in the fight against Hitler’s fascists in Europe.

coverYet in the eyes of the novel’s narrator, Roth’s alter ego, novelist Nathan Zuckerman, the Swede is a plaster saint, a bland, blond cipher. The Swede goes on to inherit the family’s Newark glove-making factory; marry a shiksa goddess, Dawn Dwyer, Miss New Jersey of 1949; and buy an old stone house in an upper-crust Gentile suburb. But in a deliciously funny scene, Zuckerman finds the grownup version of his childhood hero impenetrably dull:

I kept waiting for him to lay bare something more than this pointed unobjectionableness, but all that rose to the surface was more surface. What he had instead of a being, I thought, is blandness – the guy’s radiant with it. He has devised for himself an incognito, and the incognito has become him.

But Zuckerman is wrong. The Swede, like Coleman Silk from The Human Stain, the third book in the trilogy, bears a wounding secret. In Silk’s case, his secret is that he is not Jewish, as he pretends to be, but a black man passing for white. The Swede, on the other hand, has remained irreducibly himself, the great American sports god married to the beauty queen, but his daughter, now three generations removed from the ghetto and raised during the Vietnam War, has turned against everything her parents represent and, in a senseless act of antiwar protest, set off a bomb that kills a man at the local post office.

covercoverIn The American Trilogy, Roth tackles the three great historical issues of his era – protest of the Vietnam War, the Communist blacklist, and racial discrimination – and in each case, he finds something profoundly original to say. In American Pastoral, Merry’s act of violence is not merely a treason against her nation, or even against her father, but an affront to the generations of Levovs who rose from poverty to respectability through hard work and pluck. In I Married a Communist, the second and weakest book in the trilogy, Roth nevertheless puts a face to devout Communist belief in the person of Iron Rinn, the six-foot-six actor who has made a name for himself playing Abraham Lincoln on the radio.

But for all the brilliance of Roth’s historical analysis, the real subject of these books isn’t American history, but the essential unknowableness of the human heart. Each of the three books is narrated by Zuckerman, who like Roth has retreated to a monastic life in rural New England following a failed marriage. In each case, Zuckerman befriends the book’s hero, makes a judgment about who that man is at his core, then learns that his original judgment is wrong. Thus the books are, in essence, love stories, in which Roth’s alter ago, desexed by prostate surgery that has rendered him impotent, is cast in the curiously feminine role of a lover who falls for a man and then has to write an entire book to figure out just who this man really is behind the mask he has built for himself.

In American Pastoral and The Human Stain, the unmasking carries special poignancy because we as readers, like Zuckerman, fall in love with the damaged, vulnerable man behind the mask. In American Pastoral, the Swede is a big, sweet American lunk who lacks the political and intellectual equipment to understand his daughter’s fury at the American war machine. Yet even after Merry’s bomb kills a man and she goes on the run, even after the Swede learns that she has joined the radical underground and built bombs that have killed more people, he still loves her. In a wrenching scene, he finds Merry living in a single rented room in the roughest part of post-riot Newark, literally starving herself as part of a crazed religious practice.

What he saw sitting before him was not a daughter, a woman or a girl; what he saw, in a scarecrow’s clothes, stick-skinny as a scarecrow, was the scantiest farmyard emblem of life, a travestied mock-up of a human being, so meager a likeness to a Levov it could have fooled only a bird.

The scene is made doubly painful by the fact that rich, capable Swede Levov can do nothing to help his daughter. He knows he should call the police, and some part of him knows this would probably save her, but he can’t do it. He is incapacitated by that most human of emotions: love.

In The Human Stain, Coleman Silk is undone by an even more human emotion: love of self. Silk is drummed out of his university job for uttering an unintended racial slur against two black students, and is too caught up in the lie he has been living for most of his adult life to save himself by telling the truth, which is that he was born black. Roth’s handling of Silk’s transition from a light-skinned black teenager to a swarthy Jewish professor of classics is a thing of beauty, but for all the power of those scenes, the book is finally less about race and Silk’s self-destructive mendacity than about the relationship between Zuckerman and his shifting understanding of who Silk is.

Silk actively romances Zuckerman – in one marvelous scene they dance together, these two impotent old men, Zuckerman with his surgical wounds, Silk who takes Viagra – but as Zuckerman begins to understand Silk’s secret, his love for him deepens. He admires Silk’s refusal to be held back by the accident of his skin color, but even more, Zuckerman loves Silk’s sheer human complexity, the fact that there is so much more to him than meets the eye.

This, for Roth, is the true human stain, that we are so much more than what people think they know about us. “For all that the world is full of people who go around believing they’ve got you or your neighbor figured out, there really is no bottom to what is known,” he writes. “The truth about us is endless. As are the lies.” The Human Stain is set in 1998, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal nearly brought down Bill Clinton’s presidency, and Roth rails with great comic gusto at “the ecstasy of sanctimony” the scandal brought into public life that year. But Roth’s real beef with Clinton’s opponents is that they refused to let Clinton be a real man with human needs. “I myself dreamed of a mammoth banner,” he writes, “draped dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the White House to the other, and bearing the legend A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE.”

coverIf I Married a Communist fails to match the other two books, it is because Iron Rinn, the being at whom Zuckerman directs his love, fails to be sufficiently complex to be fully human. I Married a Communist, which turns on a tell-all book by the hero’s actress ex-wife that ruins his life, came out shortly after Roth’s actress ex-wife, Claire Bloom, published her own tell-all book about Roth, Leaving a Doll’s House, and critics read I Married a Communist as Roth’s less-than-subtle response. Given the weaknesses of I Married a Communist, the critics may have a point. The novel is so consumed with its vitriolic attack upon Iron Rinn’s wife, Eve Frame, and her daughter, a professional musician named Sylphid (Bloom’s daughter, it is worth noting, is an opera singer) that it neglects to make Iron Rinn into the kind of multi-layered, vulnerable man worthy of Zuckerman’s love, much less that of his readers.

Which brings us to the biggest knocks against Philip Roth, and perhaps the reason you, the members of the Swedish Academy, have not already awarded Roth the honor he so plainly deserves. The charges are, to put the case bluntly, that Roth’s oeuvre is uneven, and that, moreover, he’s a sexist pig. And you know what? There’s something to both these charges. Roth has written some truly dreadful books, and in much of his lesser work, including the often puerile David Kepesh novels, a primary quest of the central character is to find a hole, any hole, into which to insert his wayward penis. Even in Roth’s greatest work, if there is an act of villainy afoot, you can bet a woman is at the root of it. I revere Philip Roth, but if I were a woman I wouldn’t get within a hundred miles of the man.

coverBut you, my esteemed friends, must see past all that, not because Roth’s personal failings don’t affect the work, since they plainly do, or even because we must take the good with the bad, but because, in Roth’s case, the good is inseparable from the bad. A more reasonable man would have known better than to follow his actress ex-wife’s tell-all book with a bilious, score-settling novel about an actress who ruins her husband’s reputation with a tell-all book. But then a more reasonable writer, one who actually cared what we thought, would never have dared, as a white Jewish man, to write a novel about a black man who passes as a white Jewish man. A more reasonable writer never would have written, in 1969, a novel like Portnoy’s Complaint about a “cunt crazy” young Jewish guy who beats off into raw liver that his mother later serves for dinner.

The case for Roth’s candidacy for a Nobel Prize isn’t that he’s a nice guy; it is that he’s a genius, and in Roth’s case, his genius lies in his audacity. Audacity doesn’t play nice. It isn’t politically correct. The peculiar power of audacity lies in its willingness to break rules, trample taboos, shake us awake – and, yes, sometimes, piss us off mightily. Audacity without intelligence begets mindless spectacle, but Philip Roth is the smartest living writer in America, and his work, good and bad, brilliant and puerile, is among the best this country has ever produced.

If Philip Roth doesn’t deserve the Nobel Prize, no one does.

Image credit: Bill Morris/[email protected].

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. His debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, is due out from Regal House in June, 2022


  1. I agree with you elle. Philip Roth’s work is uneven, often puerile and misogynistic and hardly the sort, in whole, that embodies, in Alfred Nobel’s words, “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” The only one of his books that I can say I really enjoyed was The Counterlife. Roth may be audacious, but I hardly think of him as a genius. There have been too many deserving writers who have been passed over–Nabokov, Borges, Cortazar, Fumiko Enchi come to mind. Roth is not one of them.

  2. There’s no doubt that Roth is a frequently brilliant, ambitious, and original writer — but the Nobel committee is going to reward an American writer I’d rather see William Vollmann, Thomas Pynchon, or Cormac McCarthy get it.

  3. Nobel Prize is not a lifetime achievement award. They usually give it to authors whose body of work shows a consistent “idealism”, a loosely interpreted word that Nobel himself mandated. So we usually gets authors whose works have some political or moral idealism at the core. I’m not sure Roth would qualify that much. Nor would McCarthy or Pynchon. Perhaps Vollmann who writes about violence and poverty.

  4. One of the challenges Roth faces in winning the Nobel Prize that even his admirers and defenders misunderstand so much of what he’s doing. In American Pastoral (the great American novel, if such a thing actually exists), Swede does not find Merry living in New York or anywhere else. The story of Merry and Swede’s reaction to her bombing is utterly and completely Zuckerman’s imagination. It is Zuckerman’s rumination on mid-century America and the failure of its promise of a rational society. Similarly, Zuckerman is outside Silk’s story in The Human Stain and imagines it.

    Both novels are about the creation of fiction, myth making, and the intersection of the personal and the cultural/political. (The same is true for The Ghost Writer and The Counterlife.) They are every bit as technically brilliant – and far more moving – than any of the more championed meta-fictions and experimental works that literature teachers love to assign. If Roth had written only the Zuckerman books, he probably would already have the Nobel Prize. (And Sabbath’s Theater, which is a very funny book about a misogynist, and not a misogynistic book. There is a difference.) Instead he dared to be prolific, he dared to take chances, he dared to fail, and, worse, dared to be a celebratory for non-literary reasons.

    Roth is brilliant. He is also the defining writer of America from the 60s onward. He deserves the Nobel Prize. But he won’t get it.

  5. If they’re so inclined to give it to an American, then Don DeLillo should get it before any of the above named writers.

  6. I think that the bookmakers will get it right this time: the Nobel will go to Adonis, because of the Arab Spring thing. And I do think that there are many better options than Roth even though I love some of his novels. Speaking of writers that never received the award I would add to the list the Argentinian genius Roberto Bolano and the Greek Nikos Kazantzakis.

  7. Roth deserves it before McCarthy, who although a great storyteller, has one note he plays over and over again. Yes, Roth has written some bad books. But when he’s good, he’s great, brilliant, complicated, morally complex, hilarious or sometimes not. American Pastoral, Sabbath’s Theater, The Counterlife- I recently opened up Zuckerman Bound, the trilogy with an epilogue. FANTASTIC. Delillo doesn’t move me. Roth does. He’s an inspiration.

  8. I don’t think many good readers would deny Roth belongs among the half-dozen or so greatest American novelists, which I guess is enough on its own to warrant a Nobel. Only passionate criticism I’ve ever heard of his work has come from people who think he’ s a jerk to women. Well, that describes at least 80% of the authors in the Library of America, so we’re going to have to blackball an awful lot of people. I would wager Roth’s take on how men and women interact is, if limited, a hell of a lot more honest and searching than what most of his detractors would ever dare to express. Besides which, Roth is an artist, so he makes those limits in his own feelings part of his works’ texture.

    Anyway, the real reason I’m chiming in here is to point out that Roth is not an inconsistent writer at all. HIs career has ben distinguished by remarkably sustained quality. He hasn’t written a really strong novel in ages–he’s on the down slope now–but the run he was on in the ’90s (or the ’70s, or the ’60s…) was just that, a great run.

  9. Roth is indeed one of the best living American novelists, and I would be thrilled if he won (for many of the reasons listed above). I think, though, that if he ever was going to, he would have won the Nobel by now. The only living American novelist I think has much of a shot right now is William T. Vollmann, because of the breadth and ambition — and the empathy — of his work.

  10. Roth won’t win because the Nobel has become overly politicized in a PC direction. He doesn’t fit their idea of what a fiction writer should be. This isn’t about aesthetic quality- it’s about toeing the PC line, at least for the most part.

  11. I so agree that he deserves to be recognised as one of the most important writers living today, and should be recognised as such. I agree with the comment about him not having been chosen yet as he does not toeing the PC line.. isnt it time their views were challenged?
    I find his books very very moving and enthralling , and have a full shelf of his work which I loan out to people as a special treat to them and they return them to me so that I can pass them on to others and give them the opportunity to know Roths work… He has become part of my life now.

  12. Philip Roth is wildly overrated, but that’s entirely beside the point. Expecting or asking the Nobel committee to reward literary merit alone–without respect to political considerations and affirmative action*–is a bit like expecting the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to reward the best film of a given year without the influence of cronyism, popularity, and big studio lobbying. I suppose in an Ideal Otherworld, award klatsches and cabals would be dedicated to aesthetic purity, but an Ideal Otherworld this surely ain’t.

    Moreover, we may like to see our personal favorites recognized and publicly rewarded, but we give these self-appointed cultural arbiters too much power by pretending they are more than they are–just another opinion among the din of millions of opinions, none of which are invalidated by our inability to award $1 million to our favorite authors.

    * Affirmative action, as in: ‘Women have been traditionally marginalized in literature, so let’s give another award to a woman this year.’ ‘We’ve given too many awards to Westerners. We don’t want to appear culturally biased or narrow-minded, so let’s give it to an African.’ ‘So-and-so may not be the best writer, but his humanitarianism is beyond reproach.’

  13. Great article. Makes me eager to go back and re-read Roth. Since “Goodbye Columbus” and “Letting Go,” I’ve looked forward to the publication of the next Philip Roth novel. It is, indeed, time to recognize this brilliant novelist with a Nobel award for literature.

  14. Fine piece- why not Roth? I couldn’t think of another living novelist who is of a similar eminence, stamina and (with occasional misfires) such a strong body of work.

  15. I just wanted to second Tony’s terrific analysis, and to stick up for the underrated I Married a Communist, which is one of the few Roth novels to demonstrate is previously confessed love for Faulkner. The long all-night conversations that give rise to the story, as told by the protagonist’s brother to Zuckerman, reminded me of Absalom, Absalom. Also, I think that Roth, in The Counterlife and the American Trilogy (what a horrible name for it), was writing about ideological purity and fanaticism, from all over the political and religious spectrum, something that he began in his also-underrated When She was Good. If there’s any political issue more important in this current atmosphere, I can’t think of it.

  16. Am i missing something here as there is not one ref to Joyce Carol Oates. One absurd argument against her is that she is too prolific.

  17. Roth is much deserving of Nobel Prize but, unlike Mr. Bourne, I found The Human Stain to be the weakest of the three.

  18. One of the great gifts of the Nobel is that it bestows international recognition on writers who could (and should) benefit from that. Roth is already flamboyantly famous, acclaimed, and wealthy. Why not give the Nobel to an accomplished artist who doesn’t have anywhere near Roth’s stature?

  19. I enjoy Roth’s work and think he is a wonderful writer.
    But what about Antonio Lobo Antunes, Cees Nooteboom, Antonio Tabucchi, Ismail Kadare, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Milan Kundera, Chinua Achebe, Peter Nadas, Claudio Magris, Carlos Fuentes, William Trevor, Amin Maalouf and the couple of dozen or so other world novelist (not to mention, poets and playwrights) who must be in the running for the prize?
    Unless you have read all of these writers in depth, to make a blanket statement like “if Roth doesn’t deserve the Nobel Prize, no one does,” seems both ridiculous and arrogant.

  20. It’s hard to pin down what motivates the panel that awards the prize and also to precisely determine on what grounds a writer should be given this most prestigious laurel (the quality of their work? their contribution to certain causes through their writing? the fact that they deserve to be recognized more widely?), but this essay is superb in recognizing just what makes Roth such a brilliant writer.

    To me, Roth writes anything but stereotypical stock characters. They may appear so upon first encounter, but gradually unravel into something so much more complex, though the reader is left with some mystery as to what motivates them or causes their behaviour or why their personality is the way it is. Mickey Sabbath of Sabbath’s Theatre, my favourite Roth book, is the best example of this in my opinion.

    This was a fantastic piece and I wish I had written it myself. Well done!

  21. I agree with Billy on this one, and just to stir the pot I’ll throw in names like, Luis and Juan Goytisolo, Jose Emilio Pacheco, Geoffrey Hill, Jay Wright, and Imants Ziedonis, all of whom have produced oeuvres as masterful, inventive, and affecting as Philip Roth’s. And this is coming from a guy who just finished “The Ghost Writer” and practically kissed that blessing of a book for all its depth and myth-making force.

    Also, where’s Pynchon gone from these discussions? I’m settled in the fact that he’ll never get the Nobel, but I’ll be damned if he ain’t a wee bit smarter than ol’ Roth, here. Of course, intelligence isn’t the sole basis of artistic genius, which means I’d be willing to argue who the better writer is, but still, the man should have some relevancy when people discuss “best living American authors”.

  22. Roth is certainly the greatest living American writer. From Goodbye Columbus to the present day he has put together a body of work that is simply without peer. His personal life is irrelevant. Picasso was no angel, but the paintings speak for themselves. Still, I agree with the previous comment that if Roth were going to win the Nobel he would have won it by now. A shame nonetheless.

  23. Here’s my offer:

    They posthumously rescind the hilariously inappropriate literature Nobels to Pearl Buck, Winston Churchill, master of the ponderous Eugene O’Neill, and Rudyard Kipling.

    Then I stop pointing out that only second-rate minds with an axe to grind would deny Roth the prize.

  24. Apologies, your honor, for an intemperate remark.

    Please strike “second rate minds.”

    Of course there are multiple, legitimate critiques of Roth, however much I disagree with most of those I have read.

    No excuse for my “second-rate” temper.

  25. My gratitude to Billy, who has pointed out the obvious. Not only does Michael Bourne not consider any of the other contenders for the prize, it never even occurs to him that he should. And yet his introduction begs for it; so does his last line. Perhaps the Swedish Academy isn’t giving their prizes to other authors because they think Roth is a sexist pig with an uneven oeuvre. Perhaps they have read the other authors, and — since this is not a strictly literary prize — examined the influence they’ve exerted, and they, honestly, deeply, profoundly, truthfully, with as much conviction as Michael Bourne, believe that these people are worthy and that Roth is not. One or two of those others might even analyse history brilliantly. One or two might consider the essential unknowableness of the human heart. Maybe one or two are even audacious. Maybe one or two are among the best their country has ever produced. It would be good to know.

    So thank you, The Millions, for this long article on Philip Roth. Now, since you’ve introduced the challenge, may we have other articles, equally long, on Ko Un, K. Satchidanandan, Mircea Cartarescu, Christa Wolf, and the rest? I’d read them.

  26. Only thing Roth “deserves” that he hasn’t gotten– and he’s gotten more indulgence than he deserves– is a swift kick in the nuts. His entire 1970s is trash; I defy anyone to read those books– including the vastly overrated and tediously self-regarding “The Ghost Writer” and come out with a “better” opinion of Roth than when they started. What a fucking child he is, swaddling his banal narcissism– save all too rare flashes of humor– in layers of middlebrow “literary” respectability. Hey asshole, remember what ELSE Chekov did?

    Amazingly, however, he turns it around in “Zuckerman Unbound” and especially “The Anatomy Lesson,” his only masterpiece since “Portnoy.”

    For “The Counterlife,” “Operation Shylock” and “Sabbath’s Theater” Roth also deserves great kudos.

    “American Pastoral” is part virtuosic, part inane and “American Tragedy” kills it every which way. Anyone who pretends Merry isn’t tripe is foolish. The best parts of “The Human Stain” are also good– almost good enough to triumph over the banal ones. “I Married A Communist” is despicable and by all evidence Roth deserved far worse than he got.

    “The Humbling” isn’t nearly humbling enough– as if “Exit Ghost” didn’t suck hard enough– especially when the “great” cocksman demures from taking the generousl offered strap-on.

    Preening for prizes is should have been above him but no. Keep groveling, Phil. Your “work ethic” was always exemplary, too bad at least half your work was trash.

  27. “… allowing the LOA to bring in enough cash to float yet another edition of Henry James’s Desk Doodles”

    It seems that belittling Henry James has become a sort of sport among morons. James lives 101 years after his death; Roth will be buried along with his body. And “Michael Bourne” is little more than an internet troll, a tiny gnat buzzing around the imposing and eternal edifice that is Henry James.

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