Philip Roth talks about his work

Many critics and reviewers persist in writing about Roth rather than his fiction. Why this persistence after all these years?

If that’s so, it may have to do with the intensity with which my fiction has focused upon the self-revealing dilemmas of a single, central character whose biography, in certain obvious details, overlaps with mine, and who is then assumed ‘to be’ me.

The Ghost Writer was automatically described in the press as ‘autobiographical’ – which means about Roth’s personal history – because the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, is an American-Jewish writer, my age, born in Newark, whose earliest writing elicits a protest from some Jewish readers. But as a matter of fact, that about constitutes the similarity between my history and Zuckerman’s in that book. The unsettling opposition from his father that young Zuckerman confronts, and that propels the moral plot of The Ghost Writer, I happen to have been spared; the intelligent, fatherly interest taken in his work by a renowned, older writer whose New England houseguest he’s lucky enough to be at 23, resembles no experience of mine starting out in the Fifties; nor have I ever met a woman to whom I have been romantically drawn because she resembled Anne Frank, or whom I mentally transformed into Anne Frank and endowed with her status in order to try to clear myself of Jewish charges of self-hatred and anti-semitism.

Though some readers may have trouble disentangling my life from Zuckerman’s, The Ghost Writer – along with the rest of Zuckerman Bound and The Counterlife – is imaginary biography, an invention stimulated by themes in my experience to which I’ve given considerable thought but the result of a writing process a long way from the methods, let alone the purposes, of autobiography. If an avowed autobiographer transformed his personal themes into a detailed narrative embodying a reality distinct and independent from his own day-to-day history, peopled with imaginary characters conversing in words he’d never heard spoken, given meaning by a sequence of events that had never taken place, we wouldn’t be surprised if he was charged with representing as his real life what was an outright lie.

May I quote John Updike? Asked about my Zuckerman books, he said to an interviewer: ‘Roth’s inventing what looks like a roman à clef but is not.’

But if your books are misread, other than by John Updike, isn’t that more or less the fate of most good writing? Don’t you expect to be misread?

That novelists serve readers in ways that they can’t anticipate or take into account while writing doesn’t come as news to someone who spent eight years with Zuckerman Bound. That’s the story told on nearly every one of its eight hundred pages, from the opening scene, when Nathan the budding writer enters Lonoff’s living-room seeking absolution from sins committed by his juvenilia against his family’s self-esteem, to its conclusion on the day that, as an established writer in his forties, he is forced to surrender to the Prague police the wholly harmless Yiddish stories that they’ve decided to impound as subversive.

The only reading resembling the ideal reading that a writer sometimes yearns for is the writer’s reading of himself. Every other reading is something of a surprise – to use your word, a ‘misreading’, if what’s meant isn’t reading that’s shallow and stupid but that’s fixed in its course by the reader’s background, ideology, sensibility etc.

To be misread in any way that bears thinking about, however, a writer has to be read as well. But those misreadings, conferred by skilful, cultivated, highly imaginative, widely-read misreaders, can be instructive, even when quite bizarre – witness Lawrence’s misreadings of American literature; or Freud’s, the all-time influential misreader of imaginative literature. So are those misreaders, the censors, influential, though for other reasons. And are the Soviet censors necessarily misreading, in Solzhenitsyn’s fiction, his political aims? Though censors would appear to be the most narrow-minded and perverse of all misreaders, at times they may be more discerning about the socially-injurious implications of a book than the most tolerantly open-minded audience.

Serious misreading has nothing to do with a text’s impenetrability – geniuses misread nursery rhymes, all that’s required is for the genius to have his own fish to fry.

In the light of this, what about an audience? Do you think you have one, and, if so, what does it mean to you?

I’ve had two audiences, a general audience and a Jewish audience. I have virtually no sense of my impact upon the general audience, nor do I really know who these people are. By a general audience I don’t refer, by the way, to anything vast. Despite the popularity of Portnoy’s Complaint, the number of Americans who have read, with any real attention, half of my books – as opposed to those who may have read one or two – can’t number more than fifty thousand, if that. I don’t think any more about them when I’m at work than they think about me when they’re at work. They’re as remote as the onlookers are to a chess-player concentrating on the board and his opponent’s game – I feel no more deprived or lonely than he does because people aren’t lined up around the block to discuss his every move. Yet an unknowable audience of fifty thousand judicious readers (or inventive misreaders) whose serious, silent attention I freely command is a great satisfaction. The enigmatic interchange between a silent book and a silent reader has struck me, ever since childhood, as a unique transaction, and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s what the public side of the novelist’s vocation has to come down to.

Counterbalancing a general audience has been a Jewish audience, affording me, really, the best of both worlds. With the Jewish audience I feel intensely their expectations, disdain, delight, criticism, their wounded self-love, their healthy curiosity – what I imagine the writer’s awareness of an audience is in the capital of a small country where culture is thought to mean as much as politics, where culture is politics, some little nation perpetually engaged in evaluating its purpose, contemplating its meaning, joking away its shame, and sensing itself imperilled, one way or another.

Why do you irritate Jews so much?

Do I any longer? Certainly ‘so much’ must be an exaggeration by now, though one that I’ve helped unintentionally to perpetuate because of the writer’s predicament in Zuckerman Bound. After 15 books I myself may have become much less irritating than the Zuckerman I’ve depicted, largely because the Jewish generation that didn’t go for me is by now less influential, and the rest are no longer ashamed, if they ever were, of how Jews behave in my fiction.

The full text of this interview is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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Philip Roth was interviewed by Asher Milbauer and Donald Watson, professor of English at Florida International University.