At the beginning of each semester, I gather basic information from my fiction writing students such as major, hometown, and favorite book. Some of this arrives from the registrar before the semester begins, but the information isn’t always accurate, and many students accustomed to large, impersonal classes appreciate even perfunctory interest in their lives. My students’ majors are varied, and the students come from all over the world, even at a state university. With few exceptions, their book selections are depressing.
The selections are not depressing because the books are sad. That would be great. I mean depressing as in uninspired, as in the last book the students can remember reading in high school, the book a movie was based on (sometimes they have only seen the movie), the Twilight series or Hunger Games series. Pretty much any series. This semester three students picked Lord of the Flies and three picked Harry Potter, edging “no response” as the most popular titles. It’s not that these books are necessarily bad, though some are. Instead, it’s what these choices suggest to me, that books occupy an ancillary role in the students’ lives. Books are something they had to read in class, or something a movie is based on, a movie everyone else is seeing. The book is rarely the thing the student willingly came to first.
Although my students and I infrequently read the same books, we watch some of the same television shows. We’re more likely to find common ground discussing Breaking Bad than Yiyun Li. If I watched Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, we’d have a lot to talk about because those programs influence their writing more than any author, living or dead. Other influences: CSI (in its various locales), Law and Order (in its various incarnations), True Blood (vampire everything). I’m not trying to be glib or cute. These are the narratives that influence students’ writing. It’s something I need to take seriously.
Who am I to determine what’s good or bad? That’s a reasonable question. Isn’t it my job, as possibly the only creative writing instructor these students will ever have, to place moving stories into their hands, instill the virtues of reading, caution them against the culture’s basest offerings? Yes, gladly. But that’s not the question I find myself asking. The question isn’t even how to teach writing to students who don’t read. The question is how to teach writing to students who watch movies and television instead of reading.
This class, I should note, is an upper-level elective. All of my students arrive voluntarily, and most are upperclassmen. My classes are unfailingly populated with curious young men and women. They’re earnest and respectful and hard-working. I genuinely like them. Every fall and spring there is a waitlist because students want to write stories. What they don’t particularly want to do is read them. Reading literary fiction for the pleasure or edification of reading literary fiction is something very few of my students do.
What they reliably do is watch movies and television. I’m not sure if I’ve encountered a student who doesn’t. When I was in college — this is the last time I’ll allow myself this indulgence — I remember few conversations about television and little time spent watching it. There was a TV in the communal lounge, but it was a shabby space relative to the temptations elsewhere. To be fair, television has improved since I was a student. David Chase’s The Sopranos and David Simon’s The Wire, everyone seems to agree, raised the bar for what a television show could be. One can debate Simon’s characterization of The Wire as a “visual novel,” but for some of my students, it’s the only novel they choose to consume.
I have my students read a lot of stories. I make a point, as most instructors do, to vary the subjects and styles, to include authors of different ages, ethnicities, genders, classes, and backgrounds. Every two years I change all of the stories, so I’m not flying on autopilot. There is no shortage of incredible short fiction. The students digest the stories dutifully. Sometimes students are visibly moved in class, which visibly moves me. These mutually-moved moments don’t happen all of the time. I’ve learned to appreciate them.
When a student really likes a story, she will often compare it to a favorite episode, and then this happens:
“It totally reminds me of the Dexter when he —”
“Oh my God, I’m obsessed with that show.”
(General murmurs of approval.)
“Have you seen the one where he [kills someone in a mildly unpredictable way for morally dubious reasons]?”
“That one is amazing.”
Nobody says she is obsessed with Denis Johnson.
My students love Dexter. I have watched enough episodes to conclude I do not love Dexter, though it’s an interesting case study, as it attempts to communicate the protagonist’s inner life. This is harder to do on the screen than on the page, and while I applaud the show’s writers for taking this aspect seriously, the character’s monologues strike me as clumsy and inorganic. They’re supposed to be funny, but they’re not funny.
I have yet to find a voiceover that doesn’t make me cringe. As great as Vertigo is, the voiceover bums me out every time. I feel like Hitchcock doesn’t trust me — or his filmmaking — enough, and I’m thrown out of what John Gardner calls the “vivid and continuous dream.” If American Hustle wins a bunch of academy awards, it will be in spite of the lazy voiceover.
Good fiction grants you sustained, nuanced entry into a character’s mind that is difficult to achieve on the screen. This is one of the reasons the best books rarely translate into transcendent films, no matter how many times studios try (e.g. The Great Gatsby). It’s also why some of the best films come from books that aren’t universally regarded (e.g. The Godfather). That The Godfather works better as a film than a book doesn’t diminish the story. Film and literature aren’t interchangeable, and watching the former isn’t necessarily going to help you write the latter. Indeed, it may give you some bad habits. In the classroom, I regularly find myself contradicting the students’ first teacher, the screen.
Each Law and Order episode begins with the short dramatization of a crime. Those two minutes set the tone for the rest of the hour. The showrunner makes a contract with the audience before each episode: There will be a crime, it will be investigated, there will be red herrings, but the crime will be solved. Although the characters are more or less the same from episode to episode, the crimes are self-contained. Clearly, this formula works. It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t enjoyed an episode of Law and Order. I particularly enjoy the halcyon days of Special Victims Unit with Christopher Meloni, Mariska Hargitay, Ice-T, and BD Wong, whom I regard as a master of deadpan.
What I don’t enjoy are short stories inspired by SVU. Meloni and Hargitay are fine actors, but on the show, their inner lives are straightforward. They’re driven by primal and singular impulses. The world they inhabit offers little complexity. Sex offenders are bad. Detectives are good. Sometimes good people have to do bad things to get bad guys; that’s about as morally ambiguous as the show gets. It also has a fetish for vigilantism that I don’t share.
One of the most common student stories begins with a scene of violence. It’s unclear who is involved, or why they’re doing what they’re doing. Typically, nobody is named. There’s a space break signifying a leap in time and place, and then the story unfolds in a linear fashion. By the end, the villain (easier to spot than the writer imagines) is apprehended, often with a bit of insufferable banter. The story doesn’t work. My students didn’t learn this formula from reading.
I reference the stories we read. Look where Raymond Carver starts his story. What is all of the protagonist’s furniture doing on the front lawn? Why does Mary Robinson have the strange woman stop by the house on the second page? Start the story as late in the action as you can, I tell my students. Make sure your protagonist wants something, even if only a glass of water. I tell them Kurt Vonnegut gave me this advice. Some of them read Slaughterhouse Five in high school. We’re getting somewhere. Did you read any of his other books? Blank stares.
Ideally, the stories I assign and recommend will lead my students to read fiction on their own. Sometimes this happens. They take other classes with me, stop by my office hours, write me emails. Few things make me happier than students from past semesters soliciting books. I hope they’re still writing, but if they’re only reading, they’re enlarging their sense of human experience. They’re becoming more empathetic and, in turn, better brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, boyfriends and girlfriends. I believe this.
Most students I never hear from again. We get fifteen weeks, twice a week, eighty minutes a class. It’s not a lot of time to inspire a lifetime of reading. It’s not a lot of time to give students a framework from which they might begin to construct meaningful stories on their own.
Each student writes two stories for my class, but the time he or she spends thinking about the published stories I assign is arguably more important. Students who haven’t taken many writing or literature classes at the university will likely arrive with few reference points, and I treat each story as an opportunity to teach students about character or structure or language. When students reference television shows, I counter with stories. If the story isn’t protected by copyright, I’ll post a link to Blackboard. Anyone can read Anton Chekhov’s “Gusev” or James Joyce’s “Araby” or Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” for free online. Publishers mail me unsolicited books all of the time; I give the good ones to my students.
Sometimes when students reference television shows, I go with it. I ask students what they like about the show and what, if anything, they might apply to their writing. If I admire the film they reference, and I think it offers something narratively rewarding, we discuss why. Occasionally, I reference a moment in a film, for better or worse. The Third Man delays the introduction of the antagonist in a way that’s supremely effective (it doesn’t hurt that Graham Greene wrote the screenplay). I rather like Lost in Translation, but the scene where Bill Murray whispers something unheard to Scarlett Johansson strikes me as a narrative betrayal. The writer and character, I’ve told them, shouldn’t know more than the reader. Like all teachers, I’m happy when students intelligently disagree.
In their own stories, I encourage students to write something that makes them uncomfortable. If they’re going to write autobiographically, and many do, they have to be prepared to show their worst characteristics. Probably, the protagonist should do something stupid or ugly. That’s what the reader wants. If they’re going to make something up completely, and I encourage this, they have to move beyond formula. If they crib a violent scene from The Walking Dead, I give them Flannery O’Connor. It’s no less gruesome.
My students are curious in my own tastes, to an extent. What do I like to watch? I tell them. I pair the film with a book. They want to know why the book is always better than the movie. They’re referring to Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. They’ve been told this so many times they believe it, even if they don’t see it personally. It’s because your imagination is so much more interesting than what’s on the screen, I tell them. They don’t buy it. Their interest wanes. The reader and the writer co-create the story, I insist. Reading is collaborative in a way that watching a screen isn’t. You prefer your image to the director’s, no matter how beautiful Jennifer Lawrence might be. You’re narcissistic that way. It’s okay.
They nod reluctantly, like maybe it is.
It is hardly news by now that Broadway theater has become a high-priced museum of its former self. This year’s Broadway season, which kicked off earlier this month, will feature a few new plays, including a limited run of Outside Mullingar from Pulitzer-winner John Patrick Shanley in January, but for the most part Broadway theaters will host the usual disheartening mix of jukebox musicals, retooled Disney movies, and revivals of hoary classics populated by downshifting movie stars.
For those who care about theater as an art form, it is this last category, the endless stream of revivals of classic American plays populated by movie stars, that really hurts. Sure, there are theaters off-Broadway and in other cities around the country that still commission and produce new plays, but the Broadway revivals, like the production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie starring Cherry Jones that opened earlier this month, show that there was once a time when serious new plays found favor not just with a small, theater-loving elite, but with a broad cross-section of middle-class America.
My own grandparents, like many educated young people in the 1940s, loved culture and fine things, but they lived in an isolated mill town in Southern Virginia without good bookstores or restaurants, much less a vital theater scene. So, like thousands of their fellow Americans, once or twice a year, they hopped a train to New York to eat a few decent meals, shop at the department stores along Fifth Avenue, and “see the shows,” which for them meant Broadway. This was, for a generation of American provincials like my grandparents, the height of sophistication and an annual ritual that sustained New York theater for decades.
Now that golden age of serious, culturally ambitious drama is gone forever.
Or is it? Certainly, given the sky-high ticket prices and the emphasis on circus-like musicals catering to baby boomer nostalgia, the next generation of great American dramatists like Tennessee Williams or Lorraine Hansberry, whose 1959 classic A Raisin in the Sun is being revived this spring, won’t be returning to Broadway any time soon. But in fact we have a platform for serious, character-driven drama in this country, and it is more popular and broad-based than Broadway ever was. It’s called cable television.
The inexorable slide of quality theater from the cultural mainstream and the rise of cable TV as the defining dramatic art form of the 21st century is a prime example of technological “creative destruction” at work. The theater of Broadway’s Golden Age was indeed terrific stuff, but as a consumer product it was wildly inefficient. Because shows were live and unrecorded, they could be seen by a limited number of people, many of whom had to travel hundreds of miles to get to the theater. Successful Broadway shows spawned touring companies – as hit musicals still do to this day – but such tours are costly to run and audiences in the smaller cities inevitably get a watered-down version of the real thing, with lower quality actors and production values.
Cable shows like Homeland or Breaking Bad, which airs its series finale this Sunday, are cheap and easily accessible to anyone with a subscription to cable or Netflix. More importantly, though, thanks to a complex set of market forces, all the incentives push cable channels to hire top-drawer actors and writers and allow them the artistic freedom to create compelling characters and story lines, much the way the best Broadway plays did half a century ago. This fragile cultural moment won’t last – more on that later – but for now it seems clear that if Tennessee Williams and Lorraine Hansberry were writing today they would be showrunners for a cable series, because that’s where the audience is.
You can measure the Golden Age of American theater in many ways, but I would mark it from the 1944 debut of The Glass Menagerie to the opening night of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1962. There were, of course, serious American playwrights before then – Eugene O’Neill is the best-known, but there were plenty of others – but those writers always seemed slightly ahead of the popular culture of their time. Likewise, many great American plays have debuted since 1962, and a select few, like Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, became part of the wider national conversation.
But for a short time after the Second World War, American commercial theater hit that elusive sweet spot where popularity meets ambitious social and artistic agendas. In his fascinating 1987 autobiography Timebends, Arthur Miller speaks of this era as
a time when the audience was basically the same for musicals and light entertainment as for the ambitious stuff and had not yet been atomized…So the playwright’s challenge was to please not a small sensitized supporting clique but an audience representing, more or less, all of America.
Miller explains how this broad-based, yet culturally hungry audience shaped the work of the era’s two greatest writers, himself and Tennessee Williams. Both men were, to differing degrees, outsiders to American culture – Williams because he was unapologetically gay, Miller because he was a Jew with strong radical beliefs. In another era, Miller says, they might well have slanted their work to please a minority audience that already agreed with them, but suddenly in the postwar years there was a mainstream audience waiting to hear what they had to say, and being both great artists and profoundly ambitious men, they opened their work outward to a mass audience.
To do that, they didn’t preach to their audiences like Clifford Odets did in his political plays of the 1930s or bash the viewer over the head with a bleak vision the way O’Neill too often does in his plays. Instead, Miller and Williams created characters – indelible, psychologically complex protagonists like the struggling salesman Willy Loman riding on a smile and a shoeshine or the tragic, half-mad Blanche DuBois forever depending on the kindness of strangers. These characters had to be psychologically complex and indelibly drawn because that’s how you appeal to a heterogenous audience not already united by social background or political outlook: you get audiences to care deeply about a character, to see themselves in someone who may not be in any outward way like them. Once you’ve done that, an audience will follow you anywhere.
Interestingly, it wasn’t the movies that put an end to Broadway’s Golden Age. Hollywood’s own Golden Age, stretching from the advent of sound in the late 1920s to the late 1950s, roughly overlaps that of Broadway. No, it was TV that killed the Broadway of Miller’s era – that and probably the jet plane. At a time when the only viable home entertainment was radio and all but the stratospherically rich traveled by train, car, or boat, Broadway theater was part of a broader leisure industry that catered to Americans like my grandparents yearning for cultural experiences they couldn’t enjoy in their own hometowns.
But once the desire for entertainment could be satisfied by a magic box in the living room and a desire for horizon-broadening travel could by satisfied by plane trips to Europe and beyond, Hollywood and Broadway had to adapt or die. They did so by splitting their audiences – “atomizing” them, in Miller’s terms – into high and low. After a decade of trial and error, Hollywood reinvented itself in the 1970s with ambitious, director-driven films like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and money-spinning summer blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars. Broadway did much the same thing, filling the bigger houses with crowd-pleasing musicals like Cats and A Chorus Line while supporting more adventurous, writer-driven work by the likes of David Mamet, Sam Shepard, and Wendy Wasserstein.
This worked for a time, thanks in large part to off-Broadway and the regional theater movement, which allowed playwrights to grow their careers at subscription-based resident theaters around the country and then bring their most popular work to New York for a money-making Broadway run. This system, low-paying and outside the mainstream as it was, still made for some pretty terrific theater. Shepard, sustained by a long-running affiliation with San Francisco’s Magic Theater, introduced audiences to his singularly bleak and funny Western vision, while August Wilson, who premiered most of his plays at the Seattle Repertory Theater, opened a window onto working-class black characters quite nearly invisible to the mainstream.
But while regional theater provided an audience for more adventurous fare, unlike in Arthur Miller’s day, it was no longer the same audience that went to see the big musicals. Mamet, Shepard, and Wilson, talented as they were, were no longer writing for “an audience representing, more or less, all of America,” but for the “small sensitized supporting clique” that Miller saw as an artistically narrowing force. And then, lo and behold, the free market worked its magic. As Broadway ticket prices escalated to pay for ever more lavish, spectacle-driven musicals, it became harder to persuade theatergoers, even the ones who like the more ambitious stuff, to risk several hundred dollars on a new play.
Enter Carrie Bradshaw and Tony Soprano. Gallons of ink have been spilled, and thousands of terabytes expended, trying to explain why audiences have become so obsessed with characters on modern cable shows, but as Adam Davidson demonstrates in a December 2012 New York Times “It’s the Economy” column, the answer has more to do with business models than any quirk of culture. When there were only three major networks, programming success depended on producing a great number of shows that were just incrementally better than what was on the two other networks, which inevitably led to the creation of a vast wasteland of expensively bland mediocrity.
But once cable blew up the TV dial, giving viewers hundreds of channels to choose from, programmers had to shift their strategy. Now, it wasn’t enough to be just a little better than the competition; now, your shows had to be a lot better. You didn’t have to come up with a huge number of great shows, just one or two at a time would do, but they had to be so good that viewers would become obsessed with the characters and story lines to the point that they would shun cable providers that didn’t carry the channels where those shows appeared.
In other words, out of the morass of network TV, the very technology that ended Broadway theater’s Golden Age, came a sort of small-screen Broadway in which a few big talents – David Simon of The Wire, Lena Dunham of Girls, Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad, and so on – have been given wide artistic latitude to create characters and stories audiences will care about. Because cable providers often operate as near-monopolies, the average cable bill has doubled in the past decade, and viewers pay close to $90 billion a year for cable service. That is a huge pot of money, and for many cable companies nearly half of their revenue is pure profit, so there is an enormous incentive to get the formula right.
But as Davidson points out in his Times column, this fragile model is already fraying at the seams. So far at least, cable subscribers aren’t canceling in large numbers, but as piracy becomes more pervasive, fewer younger people are signing up for cable in the first place. “When people in their 20s move out of their parents’ house or dorm room, they are less likely to get into the habit of paying for cable,” he writes. “If they get addicted to Breaking Bad, they’ll often download it free through file-sharing services like Bit Torrent or wait for it to come out on iTunes.” To make up for lost revenue, cable providers have to jack up rates, which drives more new viewers away, setting up a vicious spiral that, according to one industry expert Davidson spoke to, could cause the entire edifice to collapse as early as 2016.
What comes after that? The short answer is nobody knows. It could get seriously messy there for a while, leading millions of Breaking Bad and Mad Men obsessives to bore their children with talk of the Golden Age of Cable. But if this history teaches us anything, it is that there is always going to be a sizeable audience that cares about quality drama enough to pay real money for it. After all, in the 1940s, Broadway’s principal competition was local amateur productions and guys on their front porches telling funny stories – a sort of analog version of today’s BitTorrent downloads and YouTube cat videos. My grandfather, who told some pretty funny stories himself, was willing to plunk down serious money to take his family to New York for a few good meals and a chance to see the best writers and performers of his age. I have no idea what entertainment technology will look like when my future grandchildren begin to hunger for something more edifying than a quick joke or a funny story, but my bet is they will be able to find it if they are willing to pay for it.
Image via studentrush.org
“One hears, in the news, that one new fad after another is sweeping the academy. World literature, digital humanities, book history, cognitive science. Perhaps everyone will just watch TV (there are twenty-seven panels on The Wire, and at least a paper, I recall, on Rizzoli and Isles, a TNT show)…The elephant in the room, or the one that has left the room a while ago (but whose stinking presence everyone still inhales deeply or holds their nose after), is Theory.” N + 1 reviews MLA 2013.
Like many people, I was saddened when it was publicized that Philip Roth had quietly announced his retirement in an interview with a French magazine. By chance, the news came near the end of a year during which my attitude toward Roth changed from appreciation to obsession. Before 2012, I had read perhaps 10 of Roth’s books in a decade. This year, I read 15 Roth novels in a row, the literary equivalent of binge-watching multiple seasons of a serial television drama. The more I read, the more I appreciated how Roth writes not only with technical virtuosity and aesthetic mastery, but also with profound spiritual intent. In this way, he reminds me of the 85-year-old Japanese master chef portrayed in the recent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. At the top of their fields and now in their twilight years, both come across as men who vacillate between narcissism and humility, perfectionists for whom life is work and work is life. As a tribute, I offer the following 10 key ideas I gleaned from Roth’s work and career. I hope these inspire fans to revisit his books, detractors to give him another try, and newcomers to read him for the first time.
1. Work hard. With 31 books in 51 years – from Goodbye Columbus (1959) to Nemesis (2010), Roth cranked out copy like Danielle Steele, James Patterson, or Stephen King, not like a precious literary genius. He could have rested on his laurels in any of the last six decades, gone off the grid like Salinger, or found a nice sinecure at a writers’ workshop. But he just kept on writing. Roth was probably at the height of his powers in the late 90s and early 2000s, the years of the masterful trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain) and The Plot Against America. But his recent books are equally elegant, the kind of short novels that demand to be read in one sitting. If you think you work too hard, think about Roth and think again. If you’re satisfied with your accomplishments, think again. Roth’s won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award (twice each), the PEN/Faulkner Award (three times), and is the only writer to have his canon published by the Library of America while still alive. The protagonist of Everyman quotes the painter Chuck Close as saying “amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.” Indeed.
2. People are animals. Roth’s male characters cannot keep it in their pants. Their lives are filled with sex, mostly adulterous sex, mostly sex with younger women. His titles alone suggest carnality (The Professor of Desire), physicality (The Anatomy Lesson), beastliness (The Dying Animal), ejaculation (The Human Stain) and straight-up sex (The Prague Orgy). In his silliest novel, The Breast, a philandering professor David Kepesh wakes up to discover that he has become a giant mammary. For all the misery their lust causes them and their wives and lovers, these guys rarely seem to learn from – or apologize for — their peccadilloes. While these tales both celebrate and caution against lechery, they are not pornography. Roth’s books lack the soft-core aspect of Haruki Murakami or John Updike or Anne Rice sex scenes. Although many of his characters objectify and mistreat women, it’s reductive to call Roth a misogynist. If anything his characters love women too much, albeit in an oft-misguided way. As Roth writes in Deception, “With the lover, everyday life recedes.” Such characters’ urges seem motivated not by hedonism, but by the desire to slake needs, to find companionship, to stave off mortality. Following the classic writing teacher advice to take away your hero’s central desire – Roth makes his alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman impotent, which only makes him hungrier for sex and more appreciative of its power. In a country where sex is still taboo, Roth’s embrace of such a core biological and psychological compulsion is not merely titillating or salacious, but refreshing.
3. We are alone and want to be known. Despite their busy bedrooms, Roth’s characters are often hermits, recluses, and lone wolves. His three major recurring alter egos – Zuckerman, Kepesh, and “Philip Roth” — are all lonely, as are many of his secondary characters, whether they are young, middle-aged, or old. Yet for all their solitude and secret lives and double lives, they still strive for the love of friends or mentors or heroes or parents or siblings or lovers. Throughout his work, Roth suggests that the deepest human longing is the desire to be known, not merely biblically, but intellectually, emotionally, and existentially. Yet we are all fundamentally mysteries to each other. As Zuckerman says in The Human Stain: “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 not known. The truth about us is endless. As are the lies.” Another character in the same novel speaks to the dilemma at the heart of Roth’s characters and perhaps of all humanity: “afraid of being exposed, dying to be seen.”
4. The flesh is weak. This is true for Roth’s characters not only in their lasciviousness, but also in their fascination with their own physical frailty and mortality. Like an episode of Law and Order or The Wire or Midsomer Murders, nearly every Roth novel features at least one death. His work is also filled with illnesses – cancer, strokes, chronic pain — and a multitude of scenes at hospitals, funeral homes, and cemeteries. All this death – and the possibility of death — raises the dramatic stakes and adds to the existential malaise and weightiness. In The Human Stain, Zuckerman describes a crowd at a concert as “an entity of sensate flesh and warm red blood, separated from oblivion by the thinnest, most fragile layer of life.” And it’s not only old people who confront death. In Nemesis, a polio epidemic strikes kids. In The Plot Against America, the narrator’s adolescent cousin loses a leg in World War II. “The Life and Death of the Male Body” — a phrase from Everyman — seems to sum up Roth’s oeuvre. But it’s not all gloom. For all their physical frailty, Roth’s characters want to live, to love, and often, to write until their last breath.
5. Beware of ideology. In Roth’s world, personal tragedy and political tragedy go hand in hand and ideologies like communism, fascism, terrorism – and their antitheses — have deadly consequences. I Married A Communist is the biography of a radio host who falls victim to McCarthyism. The Plot Against America imagines an alternate reality where America flirts with fascism and Nazi Germany under President Charles Lindbergh. Pulitzer Prize-winner American Pastoral is the story of a homegrown female terrorist. In The Human Stain, an aging professor battles with political correctness and professional persecution at the university as well as neo-Puritanism in the era of Clinton and Lewinsky. In The Prague Orgy, Zuckerman goes to Eastern Europe, where the secret police track his every move. And in many of his novels, Roth speaks of the horrors of a century of American militarism, from World War I and II to Vietnam and Korea to Afghanistan and Iraq. And according to a character in The Human Stain, human history consists of two types: “the ruthless and the defenseless.” Overall, the message seems to be that any mass political movement – on the left or on the right, radical or reactionary, secular or religious – poses grave danger to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A eulogy in The Human Stain celebrates “the American individualist,” suggesting that people are better off when they think for themselves.
6. Prejudice is alive and well. Along with his distrust of ideology, Roth’s fiction critiques the pervasive Anti-Semitism and racism in America. Roth’s protagonists are mostly secular or atheist or agnostic Jews, but they still identify as Jewish, and perhaps more important, others label them as Jews. Roth was born in 1933, the year Hitler came to power, a historical fact that lingers in his books. Sometimes it’s a major plot point, as in The Plot Against America, which includes forced resettlement of Jews, or in The Ghostwriter when Zuckerman meets a woman he believes is Anne Frank, or I Married A Communist, which links anti-Semitism and McCarthyism. Not that Roth spares Jews from his critical eye. The Zionist rabbi in The Counterlife and the rabbi in The Plot Against America who colludes with the Lindbergh regime are two of his most villainous and least sympathetic characters. And his narrators often vent their frustration with the strictures of Judaism. Zuckerman is often called a traitor for his fictional depictions of Jews. In Portnoy’s Complaint, the narrator’s mother thinks he’s eating non-Kosher food in the bathroom, when in fact he’s masturbating. And there’s one aching moment in The Plot Against America where a young boy sees his mother on the bus through the world’s eyes: “It was then that I realized…that my mother looked Jewish. Her hair, her nose, her eyes – my mother looked unmistakably Jewish. But then so must I, who so strongly resembled her. I hadn’t known.” In one of his finest books, The Human Stain, Roth adds the issue of racism through Coleman Silk, an African-American professor who “passes” as white and pretends to be Jewish to his family, friends, and colleagues. While overt anti-Semitism and racism may be less common in 2012 than it was in Roth’s youth – and an African-American is our president – Roth implies that we shouldn’t congratulate ourselves on our tolerance. Given America’s history of racism and religious persecution and more recent treatment of Muslims since 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the constitutional claim that “all men are created equal” is more of a hope than a reality.
7. New Jersey is beautiful. There’s no deeper prejudice than the native New Yorker’s snobbery about New Jersey, a prejudice I share despite a dad from Hoboken, a girlfriend from East Brunswick, and a lot of time spent in the Garden State over the last two years. But let’s be honest. New Jersey deserves a lot of its bad rap: the traffic and toxic smells on the turnpike, the Guidos and Guidettes down the shore, the violence and poverty in Newark and Camden. Even the musical celebrities – Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, and Bon Jovi — are mercilessly cheesy. Yet in Roth’s eyes, New Jersey is beautiful, if not aesthetically, then emotionally. And as Roth points out in The Human Stain, New Jersey was originally called New Caesarea, a name surely suggestive of an empire. Not that Roth romanticizes Jersey: the squalor and decay of his once idyllic native Newark is recurrent, but he portrays it as a real place with complexities and contradictions, virtues and flaws. While his Jersey-born characters often escape to the culture of New York or the tranquility of the Berkshires, and Roth himself has lived in Connecticut and New York sine 1972, you can’t take the Jersey out of the kid or the books. When he dies, I hope the state finds an appropriate way to honor him. No disrespect to Woodrow Wilson, Vince Lombardi, and Thomas Edison, but I hope it’s not the Philip M. Roth Rest Stop. Then again, it might be fitting. Like that quintessential Jersey car – the Ford Mustang — that first came out in 1964, back when Roth had only two books to his name — Roth is an American classic whose styles change, but is always recognizable as itself.
8. There’s a fine line between reality, fiction, and fantasy. Many writers blur the boundary between fiction and their own lives. Roth takes this to an extreme. His characters are writers, professors, and artists who might as well be writers, and even a recurring “character” named Philip Roth. (Fortunately, Roth has the good sense to focus more on their personal lives than their literary lives). His favorite settings include his native Newark, Chicago (where he went to graduate school), and the fictional Athena College, which reads like a small town New England fusion of the schools where Roth studied and taught (Bucknell, Chicago, and Princeton). Even his more outlandish premises (The Breast, The Plot Against America) are grounded in reality. While Roth may have some literary gas left in his tank, he’s clearly concerned with events of this world. There’s no danger of him writing Nathan Zuckerman: Vampire Hunter.
9. The Power of Three. Roth’s stories are filled with grace and grandeur, fast-paced plots, and high stakes drama. He writes both linear and non-linear narratives, often with seamlessly overlapping layers of memory and reflection. While he favors first person narration, he also experiments: deception is written entirely in dialogue, essentially a play without stage directions. And beyond his subject, there is the majesty of his prose, lush but never dense, intellectual but never pretentious. His sentences can be one word or contain 23 verbs, like a sentence in The Plot Against America. One paragraph in I Married A Communist uses the word betrayed or “betrayal” 23 times. And like a character in The Human Stain, his best friend seems to be the dictionary. Full analysis of Roth’s prose would take a dissertation, so I’ll look at one signature move. Open any page of Roth at random and you’re almost guaranteed to find at least one triplet. One word repeated three times in a single sentence. The same word in three consecutive sentences. A sentence with three nouns or three adjectives or three verbs. A sentence with three adverbs or three prepositions or three proper names. Three consecutive sentences that begin with the same word or phrase (anaphora). Three consecutive sentences that consist of a single word. Three consecutive sentences of dialogue. Three consecutive questions. And permutations and combinations of all the above. One of Roth’s favored techniques is to describe a character’s outfit in terms of three items of clothing. Even when he quotes other writers – such as Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, or Anton Chekhov — he uses passages that feature triplets. Roth mentions this technique in Exit Ghost, which confirmed my suspicion that he writes triplets on purpose. Yet despite its ubiquity the technique never gets stale, because Roth’s command of grammar, syntax, and punctuation – especially em dashes, colons, and semi-colons — gives him a seemingly limitless number of ways to write triplets. After I noticed the technique, I started marking triplets with a 123 in the margins – and then using triplets in my own prose (as you might have noticed). As Joan Didion once said: “Nothing is too heavy to lift.”
10. Know when to quit. Roth’s retirement announcement was not entirely surprising. Now a few months shy of his 80th birthday, he hadn’t published a book since Nemesis in 2010, and in Roth time, two years is an eternity. He also hinted at his literary exit in 2011, when he told The Financial Times: “I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did.” Then again Roth has read plenty of fiction, including all of his own, which is more than most people, myself included, can say.
Image credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]