Book Critic Joan Baum Remembers Philip Roth

May 23, 2018

American novelist Philip Roth has died. He was 85. Roth’s work is known for its unflinching look at the human character. His style was deeply autobiographical. Many of his works were set in his hometown, Newark, N.J., and his characters often struggled with the complexities of integrating into mainstream American life.

For more about Philip Roth and his work, WSHU’s book critic, Joan Baum, spoke with All Things Considered Host Bill Buchner. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Hello, hello. I’m so pleased to be able to talk about my most favorite writer.

Who was Philip Roth?

Oh gosh. I guess what he was was a fine writer—and I’m watching my language here—I’m not calling him a Jewish-American writer. I’m not even going to call him a novelist because I think too many people don’t realize the breadth, as well as the depth, of his work.

He was a fiction writer, short stories and novels, but he was an absolutely superb essayist and critic. And an editor. He was one of the first people to bring to the attention of the West, Eastern European writers. He was also a superb talker. And a great comic. Folks have said—and I think the obit in today’s Times repeats it—that if you were in a room with him, which alas I wasn’t, you would hear some pretty good stand-up stuff.

So, in answer to your good question, I give you a kind of opaque answer. That he’s someone who defied being pigeonholed, and I see no one in his league. No one that able, by the way, to overcome some very nasty criticism, ever since Portnoy’s Complaint where he was accused of being a Jew-hating Jew. And then later, in a more conservative time, a rad—radical chic—and then another time, anti-Israel. And then, being accused of being a misogynist. I can’t even think of a writer who has caught the popular attention so much that he’s loved and also despised.

I think you answered my second question! I’ll skip to the third.

What was it?

I was going to ask you, what did Philip Roth bring to the American novel?

One of the delights in reading his book is that you never quite know what the next one’s going to be, even if it’s a character—and typically it is—who has appeared in something before, the character is on a new road, and you really can’t anticipate what’s going to happen.

He keeps it moving, and he also evidences what, for me, is true of every great American novel. You read it as fiction, but what you come away with is learning something about craft, a business, an industry, a way of life. Glove making in one book, traveling in special cars in another. And in my favorite work, Sabbath’s Theater, you learn about puppetry.

Could you tell us a little bit more about the Philip Roth book that stood out most for you?

That is Sabbath’s Theater, which was published in 1995, and it won the National Book Award. It is a hard book to read. It’s about a puppeteer, who is growing old and fears dying. And his way of fighting, fighting against the dying light, is to have a relationship with an older woman. And the sexual component of the book is very hard for a lot of people to read, particularly women, who think that the detail is insulting to women. I think just the opposite. And it’s full of cynicism, of hardness, of despair, and finally at the end, of going on.

Joan, thank you for joining us today.

Thank you so much.