:: Article

In Praise of Ig-Nobel Literature: on Philip Roth

By Shannon Burns.

Philip Roth

Philip Roth’s fiction repeatedly stages the tumultuous drama of losing agency or dignity or control, of becoming “cheap” in one form or another, and of being unable or unwilling to embrace the moral disposition that “serious” writing—or, indeed, responsible adulthood—seems to demand. Given these preoccupations, and Roth’s fondness for obscene amplification, it is little wonder that a Swedish Academy charged with honouring authors who produce “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction” have chosen to bypass Roth. Nobel Laureate, Philip Roth would be its own kind of obscenity; it would suggest that those who sit on the committee are barely literate.

But why should literature move in an “ideal direction”, anyway?

Some strains of contemporary criticism are driven to weed out the “bad seeds”, writers who are considered morally dubious, and Roth’s reputation has certainly suffered as a result of this critical turn, but I want to suggest that writers who disappoint moral or ideological expectations are as worthy of attention as those who appeal to and reinforce them. Writers are under no obligation to be role models or social engineers, and literature needn’t serve to reassure its readers or confirm their values.


Partly due to lingering anti-Semitic tropes that figured Jewishness as inherently impure, and Jewish communities as a real and present danger to Anglo-Saxon Protestant-American values, the pressure on young Jewish-American men to appear sensitive, cultured, scrupulously moral and sexually unthreatening was severe throughout much of the early-to-mid-twentieth century. Roth’s fiction partly dramatises his rejection of that imposition.

His slim early novel, The Ghost Writer (1979)—the first to be narrated by the most resilient of Roth’s fictional alter egos, Nathan Zuckerman, and the first of the Zuckerman Bound trilogy—marked the beginning of an unsteady evolution from gifted young celebrity author to major twentieth century writer. The Ghost Writer charts twenty-three-year-old Zuckerman’s visit with his literary hero, E.I. Lonoff, who lives with his wife, Hope, in a kind of self-imposed exile in outer New England. Zuckerman seeks Lonoff’s advice and support, following his father’s pleas to withdraw his most recent story, ‘Higher Education’ from publication—a request that he refuses. According to his father, Nathan’s decision to fictionalise an uncle’s immoral behaviour represents an unconscionable betrayal of his tribe. As with Roth, who aroused protracted anger from members of the Jewish-American community for his unflattering depictions of Jewish-American life in Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), the first stage of Zuckerman’s career as a writer brings to light a conflict between his apparent moral duties and literary sensibilities.

The career-long resonance of Kafka’s oeuvre for Roth, cemented with his 1973 story ‘“I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting”; or Looking at Kafka’, is also apparent in Portnoy’s Complaint. Within a short period Roth wrote and published My Life as a Man (1974)—which hints at, among other things, the traumatic personal circumstances that, according to Roth, sensitised him to Kafka’s fiction—and the first two ‘Kepesh novels’: The Breast, in which David Kepesh is transformed into a breast, parodying Gregor Samsa’s more enigmatic metamorphosis, and The Professor of Desire, wherein Kepesh goes on a pilgrimage of sorts to Kafka’s hometown of Prague. During this time Kafka plays a significant role in Roth’s shifting, reflexive style, before the influence is essentially resolved in the Zuckerman Bound trilogy.


To summarise Portnoy’s Complaint: one morning Alexander Portnoy—an intelligent Jewish-American boy with unusually developed moral values—woke to discover that he had been transformed into a monstrous masturbator. Two decades later he is still dealing with the turmoil of this awakening.

Initially banned from sale in Australia, and from numerous public libraries in the United States, Portnoy’s Complaint is a satirical tour de force. Portnoy addresses a long monologue to his analyst, Dr. Spielvogel. Among other things, the monologue tackles Portnoy’s erotic and ethical shortcomings, lingering in particular over his father’s domestic and economic emasculation, his mother’s overbearing cleanliness and affection, his fraught relationship to Jewishness, and a selection of doomed love interests. Portnoy, a civil rights lawyer, is afflicted with apparently “animalistic” sexual compulsions; his concern for impoverished people and minorities is matched only by his neurosis; he is socially productive, but his private self is obsessively masturbatory (“I am the Raskolnikov of jerking off”); his relationships with women are coloured by a misogynist streak; and his aggression against aspects of Jewishness verges on anti-Semitism. These and other conflicts (“Doctor, what should I rid myself of, tell me, the hatred…or the love?”) doom Portnoy to sexual and emotional impotence.

Whereas Portnoy complains about the stultifying imposition of formal and categorical limitations and stereotypes—furnished by “the Jewish joke” that he feels trapped inside as well as the psychoanalytic discourse constraining his confession—in The Ghost Writer Zuckerman reacts against the imposition of moral and tribal expectations. Roth diverts his earlier protagonist’s social and sexual dilemmas to the realm of aesthetics, posing questions like: Is there an obvious or essential relationship between moral responsibility and artistic expression? Can “great art” be the product of seeming moral deviancy? Can the drive to “be good” withstand the desire to produce great literature when a conflict between them arises?

Roth provides no easy answers, but the younger Zuckerman’s lingering desire to remain guiltless is subtly but repeatedly derided by an older narrator who has long since shed his “precious innocence”.

On the face of it, Roth’s portrayal of Lonoff suggests that a kind of Apollonian discipline can coexist with high artistry, even if its price is severe isolation and self-denial. But, tellingly, Zuckerman’s innate authorial temperament is at odds with his writer-hero’s. Whereas Lonoff seems to personify and respect the sacred aspects of his Jewish heritage, Zuckerman, like Roth, challenges them. Whereas Lonoff writes with “unyielding restraint”, Zuckerman, like Roth, writes with agitated indulgence, indignation and passion.


Part of the charm of Roth’s fiction is his way of predicting and undermining familiar interpretative predispositions. For example, just as readers are tempted to accuse Portnoy of treating women like sexualised meat, he has sex with a piece of liver, which his mother then cooks and the family eats. Portnoy declares: “I fucked my own family’s dinner.” And consider an episode in Sabbath’s Theatre (1995), when the description of Sabbath’s lover, Drenka, begins to mirror earlier descriptions of Sabbath’s deceased mother, who is literally haunting him. Just as we mechanically register a familiar pattern and connect the dots that typically lead to the most hackneyed form of psychoanalytically-driven analysis, like: “Drenka is the site upon which Sabbath fulfils his repressed desire for his mother,” Roth writes:

When, while fucking Drenka up at the Grotto, his mother hovering just above his shoulder, over him like the home plate umpire peering in from behind the catcher’s bat, he would wonder if she had somehow popped out of Drenka’s cunt the moment before he entered it, if that was where his mother’s spirit lay curled up, patiently awaiting his appearance.

Roth produces such undercutting gestures over and over in his novels, displaying contempt for automatic or censorious critical habits in the process, and demanding an engaged and imaginative analysis that expands the dimensions of the text instead diminishing it. His profane fantasy revolving around Anne Frank in The Ghost Writer (where she survives, goes into hiding, and seduces Lonoff) is another such gesture. You think I’m being disrespectful to and imperilling the Jewish-American community with my stories, he seems to say to his reader-accuser-father, then how about this for recklessness and disdain?


The Human Stain (2000) is perhaps Roth’s fullest elaboration of the transgressive impulses registered in The Ghost Writer. Coleman Silk, who is as intellectually and physically precocious as a young man as he is wilful and egotistical, does more than merely “inform” on his tribe for the sake of his ambition; instead, he renounces his black identity and its accompanying burdens for the social freedoms afforded to Jewish men, and is consequently expelled from his family. 

In college Coleman learns that racism is alive and well in broader America, but he also comes to resent the clannishness of black campus life:

At Howard he’d discovered that he wasn’t just a nigger to Washington, D.C.—as if that shock weren’t strong enough, he discovered at Howard that he was a Negro as well. A Howard Negro at that. Overnight the raw I was part of a we with all of the we’s overbearing solidity, and he didn’t want anything to do with it or with the next oppressive we that came along either. You finally leave home, the Ur of we, and you find another we? Another place that’s just like that, the substitute for that?

Coleman, the arch-individualist, “the greatest of the great pioneers of the I”, rejects the identities and obligations imposed on him by racists and antiracists alike. His pale skin and ambiguous features allow him to “pass” as Jewish if he wants to, and the temptation proves too strong. Coleman’s desire to circumvent the expectations of his tribe is registered in anti-moralist terms:

No. He saw the fate awaiting him, and he wasn’t having it. Grasped it intuitively and recoiled spontaneously. You can’t let the big they impose its bigotry on you any more than you can let the little they become a we and impose its ethics on you. Not the tyranny of the we and its we-talk and everything that the we wants to pile on your head. Never for him the tyranny of the we that is dying to suck you in, the coercive, inclusive, historical, inescapable moral we with its insidious E pluribus unum.

The first part of the above passage is sober and sensible enough but, importantly, what follows is progressively more impassioned, and has much in common with Roth’s rendering of other characters’ emotionally charged, and even deranged, inner monologues. The repeated and amplifying negations are a sign that Coleman is not in full possession of his prodigious mental faculties, that his intelligence has fallen hostage to strong emotion, as it does when he is unjustly accused of racism and misogyny decades later.

Coleman is a profoundly flawed protagonist. He is vain and autocratic; he is condescending to colleagues and students; and his fury is out of proportion with the injustice that he endures. Before falling prey to another spell of rage, he imagines his lover, Faunia (who has suffered far worse indignities and tragedies than he) musing:

He really thinks that what everybody thinks, what everybody says about him at Athena College, is so life-shattering. It’s a lot of assholes not liking him—it’s not a big deal. And for him this is the most horrible thing that ever happened? … Two kids suffocating and dying, that’s a big deal. Having your stepfather put his fingers up your cunt, that’s a big deal. Losing your job as you’re about to retire isn’t a big deal. That’s what she hates about him—the privilegedness of his suffering.

Indeed, the grim fates of Faunia and her damaged and dangerous husband, Les Farley, serve to underline the immense privilege that the novel’s primary antagonists, Coleman and Delphine Roux, enjoy: one as a powerful and well-educated (seemingly) white male and the other an aristocratic daughter of French academics. Both are incensed when their ambitions are thwarted or when their feelings of “specialness” are undermined; but, as with Achilles and Agamemnon, their fury appears juvenile when the larger context is taken into account.


Everyone is imperfect and impure in Roth’s novels, afflicted with what Faunia calls “the human stain”:

That’s how it is… we leave a stain, we leave a trail, we leave our imprint. Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen—there’s no other way to be here. Nothing to do with disobedience. Nothing to do with grace or salvation or redemption. It’s in everyone. Indwelling. Inherent. Defining. The stain that is there before its mark. Without the sign it is there. The stain so intrinsic it doesn’t require a mark. The stain that precedes disobedience, that encompasses disobedience and perplexes all explanation and understanding. It’s why all the cleansing is a joke. A barbaric joke at that. The fantasy of purity is appalling. It’s insane. What is the quest to purify, if not more impurity?

Instead of sifting through Roth’s fiction to determine its moral purity, or the extent to which it moves in an “ideal direction”, we should treat it as a medium through which the hidden and contradictory compulsions of impure (and even ludicrously wayward) humans are staged, and where Faulkner’s idealistic verities are balanced against their ugly opposites—fear, the libido, hatred, shame, cruelty and egoism—without the infantilising presence of a morally dependable narrator or author.


Shannon Burns

Shannon Burns is a writer, reader and critic. He is currently working on a critical biography of Gerald Murnane.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 12th, 2017.