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Philip Roth biographies, and literary biographies in general

I was talking with someone the other day about that Philip Roth biography, you know, the one that got pulled by the publisher after it turned out that the biographer had been a major sexual harasser of women who he’d taught in middle school . . . what a messy story! I’m not the world’s biggest Philip Roth fan, actually I’m pretty sure he’s not one of my 2,000 favorite authors, but he’s written some great things like The Ghost Writer, and he lived a newsworthy life, so I had a casual interest in looking at his biography, even if I wasn’t planning to buy and read it, as I did with biographies of George V. Higgins, John Updike, Alfred Kazin, Shirley Jackson, George Orwell, etc. I was at the bookstore last month and flipped through it briefly. I checked the index for Veronica Geng, who did some editing for Roth (a waste of time in my opinion; I like her writing a lot better than his!), that was about it. A few years ago I read an interesting book about Philip Roth, but that’s because I’ll read pretty much anything by Claudia Roth Pierpoint (no relation), who was the author of that book.

Anyway, after the un-publication of the recent biography, I was curious so I did some web searching and found this interesting review by Judith Shulevitz, which briefly mentions another recent biography, “Philip Roth: A Counterlife,” by Ira Nadel. I went to the library to order that book and they didn’t have it available in physical form but there it was online so I skimmed through it.

Reading all this made me think that there are several dimensions to a literary biography:

1. Factual accuracy. Not getting things wrong.

2. Comprehensiveness. Telling the whole story, not skipping over big chunks of the work or the life.

3. Unearthing new material from the author’s papers, or letters, or obscure newspaper articles, or interviews with the author or people who knew the author.

4. Interpretation of the literature, or of the connection of the literature to the life and times.

5. Readability. Telling stories in an interesting way.

Nadel does OK on 1, 2, and 5 above. His book was readable if a bit awkward at times. It reads more like academic writing than like journalism or literature, and I’m guessing that this is just how the guy writes. I don’t really see much of 3 and 4, which makes me wonder why he wrote the book in the first place. I mean, if you’re just gonna re-tell a bunch of stories that have already been told many times before, why bother? On the other hand, it seems like a competent summary.

Also, Nadel’s book seems judicious. I don’t think it’s necessary for a biographer to show good judgment—I didn’t list this in those five attributes above—but it’s a plus when it occurs. Nadel is sympathetic to Roth while also being sympathetic to the people he knew. It’s not so easy to write about a famous and controversial person without taking sides, and Nadel does that. So good on him.

The book also had some funny bits. Apparently Roth really wanted a Nobel Prize, and he and his friends felt it was unfair that he didn’t get one. Check this out:

I don’t get it. Nobody’s owed the Nobel Prize. They didn’t give it to James Jones, or or John Updike, or John Cheever, or Philip K. Dick or Joan Didion or . . . I’m not saying all these authors “deserved” the prize, whatever that means, just that lots and lots of innovative and accomplished American writers of that era did not win it, so I don’t see what would make Roth’s omission such a big deal. Veronica Geng and James Thurber didn’t win the Nobel Prize either! OK, Dick and Geng died suddenly and unexpectedly, before the Nobel committee would’ve had the chance to honor them. But the others were around for awhile, right?

Anyway, that’s just a funny story, but it makes me wonder whether Roth had too much personal charm for his own good. He was such a captivating guy, it seems that he pulled lots of intelligent people into his reality distortion field. I mean, sure, I guess that Nobel Evening thing was kind of a joke in homage to Roth’s over-the-top, outrageous spirit, but still . . . maybe if he had a bit less charm, it would’ve served him better because then his friends could’ve told him to chill out about the damn prize.

OK, I have no idea. I guess it’s a tribute to Nadel’s book that I got involved enough in Roth’s personality to even think about things in that way. Doing ok on 1, 2, and 5 above isn’t bad.

P.S. Here’s some more for you:

Another good review of the recently un-published Roth biography. This review is by Benjamin Taylor.

An absolutely repulsive article I came across entitled, “I wish Philip Roth would die more often!”, which begins, “When word came last Tuesday night that Philip Roth had passed away, I reacted inappropriately. Gentle reader, would you think less of me if I confessed that upon receiving the sad news, I speed-dialed my agent and conferred with publicists?” Yeah, yeah, I get it. Dude’s being transgressive. Well, let me tell you something, I’ve read Portnoy’s Complaint and you, sir, are no Alexander Portnoy. Yuck.

P.P.S. If you care about biographies at all, even one little bit, you have to read “The Shadow in the Garden” by James Atlas.

P.P.P.S. I also ordered Claire Bloom’s autobiography from the library. Will report back when I’ve read it.

P.P.P.P.S. I read Bloom’s book, and I liked it! See here for my report and also a discussion of the recent Roth biography.

17 Comments

  1. paul alper says:

    Andrew wrote about Jacques Berlinerblau’s reaction to Roth’s death:

    “An absolutely repulsive article I came across entitled, ‘I wish Philip Roth would die more often!’, which begins, ‘When word came last Tuesday night that Philip Roth had passed away, I reacted inappropriately.'”

    Berlinerblau’s article is worth reading if only for “Given how bereft of excitement a professor’s life can be, I sort of wished Philip Roth would die more often!…I even work for the journal Philip Roth Studies. In light of these investments, what accounts for my ambivalence and irreverence toward his passing?”

    Read on to find out why the ambivalence and the irreverence.

  2. Jonathan (another one) says:

    OK… I gotta ask. What is it you don’t like about Roth’s writing? I’d say he’s clearly in my top 100 writers for The Counterlife alone. He was inconsistent, I admit. And the later work was not very good at all (I’m thinking of The Plot Against America). But anything in particular you didn’t like?

    • Andrew says:

      Jonathan:

      It’s not that I dislike Roth’s writing, exactly. I just don’t find his stories to be so compelling. The Ghost Writer was kinda perfect, but in general I just don’t find his stories or characters so compelling. There just happen to be a few thousand other writers I find more interesting. That’s not a knock on Roth. Writing’s not so hard, and there are zillions of writers out there.

  3. John Bullock says:

    Apparently Roth really wanted a Nobel Prize […] Nobody’s owed the Nobel Prize. They didn’t give it to James Jones, or John Updike

    Andrew, you might be interested in this article about the relationship between Roth and Updike: https://hudsonreview.com/2019/10/roth-updike/. It includes this line from Roth, which is memorable, at least to me: “John had more talent, but I think maybe I got more out of the talent I had.”

    • Andrew says:

      John:

      I didn’t like that essay at all! “The two men weren’t in lockstep, and they weren’t imitating each other, certainly, but each was reading the other—with interest, admiration, maybe a tinge of envy—and surely they were both aware that each of them was assembling a major body of work and that (with the possible exception of Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison) no one else in America was writing at the same level.”

      I hate that attitude! I hate it when Norman Mailer talks that way, I hate it when Martin Amis talks that way, and I hate it here too. I mean, sure, maybe they felt that way, as if they were above everyone else, but I don’t buy it at all. The phrase “at the same level” is so sloppy, and I think it’s just inaccurate. I’m ok with the claim that the best work of Updike, Roth, Bellow, and Morrison is at a higher level than anything by, say, Gore Vidal or Anne Tyler or Don DeLillo or various other serious novelists whose work had clear limitations. I don’t know if I agree with that assessment, necessarily, but I could see the argument being made. And I could also see the argument that you can’t directly compare these authors to genre writers such as George V. Higgins or Philip K. Dick—although if the author of that piece wants to say that, I think he should explicitly say “non-genre writing” to clarify that point. But, even so, even restricting to non-genre American fiction writers of the 1960s-1980s (beyond which time Updike was no longer writing good novels, in my opinion), there’s still Richard Ford, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, etc., along with authors who were not so prolific whose work may have been more uneven but were writing “at the same level” at some point, authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates, James Dickey, etc etc etc. By “etc etc” I’m including all sorts of writers whose books I haven’t read myself like Walker Percy or Shirley Hazzard or Thomas Pynchon, not to mention authors more on the pop side of things like Stephen King or Alice Walker.

      I don’t see why that dude can’t write about Updike and Roth without putting them on a pedestal and putting down just about everybody else.

  4. morris says:

    This post looks to me like an elaboration of the dictum to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth as far as one can, otherwise shut up. I liked it.To go beyond saying you like or dislike some work with more words than necessary to point in a direction is going beyond the dictum in that it is subjective ie about me. Why should this be of interest unless the statements carry actual weight of implementing action (e.g Ayatollah).

  5. Mikhail Shubin says:

    Speaking of literary biographies, I recently read John Garth’s “Tolkien and the Great War”, and I liked it. I feel it performs well on all five metrics.

  6. David J. Littleboy says:

    “I don’t get it. Nobody’s owed the Nobel Prize.”

    Here in Japan, Haruki Murakami has a large and energetic fan base, and they hold a “He’s gonna get the prize this year!” event every year go home disappointed. Every year.

    (The wiki article indicates that the Japanese literary world isn’t impressed, and that’s my impression, too. The two main “literature” prizes here are the Akutagawa Prize (for pure literature) and the Naoki Prize (for popular literature). He seems to fall smack dab in the middle between them. But he’s won gobs of other prizes, including the prize given by Gunzo, the only one of the four monthly lit magazines I (try to) follow.)

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