Even after writing award-winning fiction for 41 years, this "extraordinarily intelligent novelist, one of the most intelligent of contemporary writers" (see "The Cost of Clarity," James Wood, The New Republic, April 17 and 24, 2000) does not enjoy mainstream recognition. So what's the holdup?
There's Mr. Roth's penchant for fictionalizing the autobiographical. The resultant monologues are often of a length and intensity that challenge even loyal academics. To some, this is self-discovery transformed to high art, an esoteric, intellectual high-wire act. To others it is merely naked narcissism, a tedious self-indulgence nonpareil.
Then there's the sex, unambiguous and excessive, sometimes for comedic effect, other times not. To some, this makes Mr. Roth an articulate comic genius; to others a part-time, upscale pornographer, or at best, a misogynist.
And then there's the Jewishness. Dismissing immediately those who wouldn't read Mr. Roth's work because they themselves are anti-Semitic, there are many reasonable people who may not read Mr. Roth because much of his work concerns itself with Jewish-American identity. It's foreign soil for many readers.
Mr. Roth often focuses his fiction through the lens of Jewish-American culture, and to the uninitiated, the Jewish names, phrases and theology, and a decidedly Jewish point of view, are obstacles.
But we don't award the Pulitzer to someone who has been cast as nothing more than a high-brow, self-obsessed, woman-hating, Jewish pervert. Any writer can be labeled, attacked.
And it looks like the publishing establishment may be addressing these obstacles and trying to get you to look at Mr. Roth's work in a new way.
Look in the printed pages preceding the text of Mr. Roth's latest book, The Human Stain, and you will find an innocuous list, "Books by Philip Roth." Common fare, right? Not exactly.
Whether the effort of publisher, marketer or author, this list is a subtle effort to repackage or canonize the author, and whoever's responsible for it is hoping some sucker of a reviewer will notice and call readers' attention to it.
Each of Mr. Roth's 23 books -- 25 counting the compilations, A Philip Roth Reader (1980) and Zuckerman Bound (1985) -- makes an attempt at a Roth bibliography, laying out his body of work in chronological order.
But the list in The Human Stain orders Mr. Roth's literary output in a new way, breaking his books into four categories: THE ZUCKERMAN BOOKS, THE ROTH BOOKS, THE KEPESH BOOKS, and a very broad catchall, OTHER BOOKS. "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't."
The method may serve the publisher's pecuniary interests, as a marketing effort to break down Roth's work into manageable categories, and perhaps in so doing gaining a wider audience. Or maybe it is Mr. Roth himself pointing out that his works are varied and that they show a larger structure for us to mull over. And maybe it's nothing.
What follows are recommendations from each of these phases of Mr. Roth's ouevre. All of the "obstacles" discussed above will be present, but they all maintain Mr. Roth's currency, legitimacy and greatness. And if you are willing to embrace these obstacles and meet Mr. Roth on his own terms -- to work a little at it and have that be OK -- then you will begin to experience Mr. Roth primarily as one of the great American literary figures of our time rather than in any other way. These seven books will help you get started.
Mr. Roth's National Literary Award Winners:
Goodbye, Columbus (1959) National Book Award
The Counterlife (1986) National Book Critics Circle Award
Patrimony (1991) National Book Critics Circle Award
Operation Shylock (1993) PEN/Faulkner Award
Sabbath's Theater (1995) National Book Award
American Pastoral (1997) 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Goodbye, Columbus (1959). Putting its 26-year-old author indelibly on the literary map, this novella and five stories were praised for their commentary on class and religion in America but got Mr. Roth into very hot water with the Jewish-American community for treating Jews (just 14 years after the Holocaust) humorously. Title story, "The Conversion of the Jews," and "Defender of the Faith" are excellent and widely anthologized.
Portnoy's Complaint (1969). Mr. Roth's undeserved pornographer label stems from this adult confession to a therapist about an angst-ridden Jewish childhood and a resultant search for sexual (and Jewish) identity. A best seller and then some, Portnoy later led one famous critic to turn his back on Mr. Roth (see "Philip Roth Reconsidered," Irving Howe, Commentary, December, 1972). But Irving, can you say, "Pulitzer"? If the comic excessiveness here inspires you, tackle Sabbath's Theater (1995), though you may feel devilishly violated afterward.
The Kepesh Books
The Professor of Desire (1977). Not the best of Roth's books, but nevertheless a fun story about sexual discovery and intimacy. Highlights are Professor Kepesh's run-in in Prague with the whore to Franz Kafka and a loving closing section that recounts a romance in the Connecticut countryside based on Roth's real life relationship to one Barbara Sproul.
The Roth Books
Patrimony (1991). The powerful, non-fiction tribute to Herman Roth, Mr. Roth's father, who died in his late '80s of a brain tumor. A story of fidelity and the admiration of a father's integrity.
Operation Shylock (1993). According to Claire Bloom (Leaving a Doll's House, Little Brown, 1996), this novel came very close to putting Mr. Roth's face on the cover of Time until a lukewarm review by John Updike helped scuttle the offer. The plot: Mr. Roth travels to Israel to confront an imposter -- named Philip Roth -- who is trying to incite Zionist Jews to leave Israel and return to Europe. A wonderful section on the 1988 Jerusalem trial of Ivan Demjanjuk, a.k.a. Ivan the Terrible, of Holocaust infamy.
The Zuckerman Books
The Ghost Writer (1979). The powerful introduction to Mr. Roth's literary alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, this work chronicles Zuckerman's (and Mr. Roth's) birth as a writer. Read this and you will discover that Anne Frank is alive and well and living in the Berkshires. A must read, and the first of the Zuckerman trilogy (Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson).
American Pastoral (1997). Mr. Roth's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel comments on the American Dream and the reverberations of 1960s America, presented as retrospective criticism. Zuckerman narrates the tale of Swede Levov and his seemingly perfect life. It's hard to argue that this is not Mr. Roth's best novel.