Monday, March 8, 2010

Do People Still Read Philip Roth?

Not long ago, I was talking with a high school English teacher about which books and writers he most enjoys teaching. He gave me the standard answers: Shakespeare, Catcher in the Rye, Toni Morrison. So I asked him if he'd ever considered teaching Philip Roth. He looked at me quizzically and said "Who? What has he written?"

That seemed odd to me, like a high school geography teacher unable to locate California on a map. But when I thought about it more, the more I worried that this wasn't just an isolated example of an English teacher who should probably consider a new profession. Is Philip Roth, one of the most prolific and brilliant American novelists ever and one of my all-time favorite writers, really losing his vaunted status as a staple of the American literary canon?  Even though he's still publishing frequently, is anyone still reading him? 

My first exposure to Roth was about 12 years ago in a literature survey class in college. Reading Operation Shylock was something of a literary awakening for me. I'd always loved to read, and even though I was wrapping up my degree in English, most of my reading-for-fun was unfocused and directionless. I didn't quite understand what I liked and what I didn't. I just read, and didn't think too deeply about what I was reading — mostly because extracting meaning from Dean Koontz isn't exactly challenging. I was skeptical of literary fiction as stuffy and boring and not cool. Reading Roth, however, was the first time I can remember reading something I knew was supposed to be heady and literary and really smart, and actually really enjoying it!

Soon after, I tried Portnoy's Complaint, perhaps Roth's most famous novel. This wasn't too long after the movie American Pie came out, and I nearly died laughing at the American Pie-esque scene in the novel (first published in 1969!) that involves the main character, and a unique and rather disturbing way of ruining the liver his family was going to have for dinner.

And that's what I've always loved about Roth (and my favorite writers, in general, for that matter.). Yeah, he's regarded as a literary genius who has won the National Book Award twice and the Pulitzer once, and is only the third novelists to have his work collected and published by the Library of America while still alive. But he can also slip into Beavis and Butthead mode, and regale you with low-brow hilariousness.

So, even though Roth, at 76 years young, is still publishing frequently (his latest titled The Humbling came out last fall, though to fairly poor reviews), it just seems to me like you don't hear much about Roth anymore. Every October, I get excited for the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature, because any year now, Mr. Roth will get his due. But so far it hasn't happened. Maybe if it does, Roth's work will see a Renaissance. I can only hope!

What do you think?  Do you still read Roth? What are your favorite Roth novels? 

(If you haven't read Roth, I'd certainly encourage you to try him. A good place to start is American Pastoral, but The Human Stain, Indignation, The Plot Against America and The Great American Novel [if you're a baseball fan] are all terrific as well. )


  1. I haven't read any Roth but I've got a few of his books on my Classics list. I'm kind of shocked that the teacher didn't know him. He seems like a modern classic -- like Irving, Updike and Mailer. But I don't know many high school teachers using those guys either.

  2. I read The Human Stain. Roth was the answer to one of our lit questions on trivia night, and I was the only one who got it right.

  3. I've read lots of Roth, going back years. I've got a few books of his sitting on my shelf just waiting to be read (like many other authors), but I really liked Plot Against America. And people do read and remember neighbors and I had a lively discussion the other night about Portnoy's Complaint. Talk about B&B mode!

  4. I read The Plot Against America last year and loved it. I've got several of his other books sitting on my shelves right now.

    I agree with one of the previous commenters, though: He's a little too cerebral for high schoolers. I could see him being used in college courses, but not high school.

    Of course, that doesn't excuse the teacher's lack of knowledge of him.

  5. It's kinda scary that an English teacher didn't even know who Roth was! My favorite is Plot against America.

  6. @home - Yeah, I see Roth as a modern classic, too - though if he heard you compare him to those "three stooges," he'd probably name a particularly odious character after you. (Hey, I love Irving, just have the feeling Roth fancies himself above those folks...)

    @Lenore - Nicely done!

    @NancyO - Ah, that warms my soul to hear that folks are still discussing Roth. Portnoy's Complaint IS a great novel for conversation, for lots of reasons. :)

    @Michelle - Yeah, I agree, except for APers, Roth may be over the head of HSers. But it is unforgivable that an English teacher wouldn't have even heard of him.

    @Bookshelf - Scary, indeed. Plot Against America was a bit of departure from Roth's normal "style", but I still loved it, too.

  7. I didn't read Roth in school at all but did read Plot Against America for a book club a number of years ago - it was great and I was so impressed by the book! I have The Human Stain on the shelf but haven't read it yet.

  8. I am working my way thru his stuff -- American Pastoral and especially The Plot Against America are brilliant and smart and current. I thought The Human Stain was a little weaker, and the movie was a disaster, and am reading Portnoy now- I think he is a must-read!

  9. i just put the human stain on my TBR list. sounds like he's having the same trouble getting recognised for his work in the way meryl streep never gets an oscar :-)

  10. @Booksnyc - The Human Stain is an underrated book, I think - hope you like it!

    @Brahm - Yeah, I think that deplorable movie clouded a lot of people's opinion of the book, which I actually thought was very, very good.

    @mummazappa - Ha - good comparison. One day, Roth will win the Nobel, and I'm gonna celebrate like my favorite football team just won the Super Bowl! ;)

  11. Apparently yes:

    Although I'll admit I haven't read anything by him. I spent all of college mired in the Elizabethan era to the Romantic period and am still trying to catch up on everything written since. I had never read Irving until last year, and still haven't fit in Updike.

  12. @Lindsay - Great article - thanks for the link. That article actually feeds my point, though - yeah, he was still writing well at a relatively advanced age in the '90s, but he published just as frequently in the '00s. And there seemed to be a massive drop-off in both quality and readership with his later, much shorter (almost novella-length) books. Well, I guess The Plot Against America (2004) is an exception, as everyone who commented on this post seemed to like it.

    Definitely read Roth before Updike! Definitely.

  13. The Human Stain was a favorite of mine...I had a hard time wrapping my head around it all though, had to put it down and ponder every few chapters. I have American Pastoral on the Bookshelf.
    Regarding teachers, it gets me so down that so many teachers stick to the same curriculum year in and year out. The amount of quality reads out there is huge. I'd really love to see some break out of their rut.

  14. How about an entire college course on Philip Roth? That's what I took. It was that professor's last semester before retiring, and he got to teach his dream class, basically. I loved it.
    I'm not surprised to see The Human Stain and The Plot Against America having so many fans here. I also really enjoyed The Ghost Writer and The Counterlife--read those if you haven't.
    Roth's newer stuff, I have to say, has either been disappointing or has sounded like too much of a retread to bother with. He isn't losing the ability to write a perfect sentence, but he is losing relevance. I'm still not excusing that high school English teacher, though, no way.