June 7, 2007

"American life was becoming so surreal, so stupefying, so maddening, that it had ceased to be a manageable subject for novelists..."

So thought Philip Roth in 1960 -- as reported in a 1997 NYT review of "American Pastoral." (TimesSelect link.)
He argued that real life, the life out of newspaper headlines, was outdoing the imagination of novelists, and that fiction writers were in fact abandoning the effort to grapple with ''the grander social and political phenomena of our times'' and were turning instead ''to the construction of wholly imaginary worlds, and to a celebration of the self.''

These remarks -- made even before John F. Kennedy's assassination and the social upheavals of the 60's magnified the surreal quotient of American life -- help illuminate what Tom Wolfe identified (with considerable self-serving hyperbole) in the late 80's as a retreat from realism. They also help explain the direction that Mr. Roth's own fiction has taken over the last three and a half decades, his long obsession with alter egos and mirror games and the transactions between life and art.


George said...

It would help if novelists actually went out and did research, like, maybe work on a whaling vessel, walk the filthy streets of London, go fishing in Cuba, or interview the inhabitants of an exotic Southern city, like Atlanta.

In any event, here's a list of the "best novels you've never read" courtesy of this week's New York magazine...


Thanks to that article, I discovered "Suzy Zeus Gets Organized" by Maggie Robbins. It's a novel written in verse. It's funny, sad, and delightful. And totally easy to understand without Cliff Notes. Even better, you can read it in two or three days.

And, of course, anything by Cormac McCarthy (except his first novel) will leave you shell-shocked. He is the master.

Sloanasaurus said...

It's funny how wrong perspectives are of the future. This lesson today needs to be applied to the global warming totalitarians and their attempts to change our society into a totalitarian state.

It will be a great time to poke fun at all of the global warming totalitarians in the future. Say in 2040, when even though the earth may have warmed, nothing much has changed other than that people are vastly better off than they were in 2007.

Here is my prediction:

Global warming fanaticism will fail in America and it will fall into the dust bin of failed totalitarian movements (along with the Nazis and Communists) except this time without a war. Maybe in 2040, the great scare will be that the ocean is about to turn into vinegar.

LutherM said...

By 1960, Roth had published the collection "Goodbye, Columbus", a good piece of writing. Later he won a Pulitzer for Fiction, a prize which had been awarded to Drury in 1960 for "Advise and Consent" - proof that Pulitzers aren't all they are hyped up to be.

PatCA said...

I think people who reach 40 years on this planet tend to think that life is stupefying, maddening, beyond management. We've just seen too much to think otherwise.

In My Dinner with Andre, which I viewed recently, it struck me that one thread of their conversation, that modern life is spinning out of control, seems so topical now 25 years later. It's part of the human condition, I guess.

Richard Dolan said...

In 1960 Roth was not yet 30. It's nice to be reminded that even someone as able as Roth could come up with such an inane comment about fiction-writing when he was being a show-off in his younger days. It's anyone's guess what he had in mind by suggesting that as of 1960 "American life ... had ceased to be a manageable subject for novelists," assuming that Kakutani was offering soundbites that accurately captured his point. Words like "surreal," "stupefying" and "maddening" don't exactly leap to mind as a description of the Eisenhower years. Perhaps Roth was referring to the passing of such novelists as Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser, who wrote the sort of realistic novels focused on contemporary social conditions Roth apparently had in mind. Of course, Steinbeck was still active -- East of Eden (1955), among others, having been published during the period Roth was presumably talking about. Both Steinbeck and Dos Passos won major literary prizes in the '60s, and thus were not exactly passe (or passed) in any sense. And the list of Pulitzer winners in the '50s -- e.g., The Caine Mutiny, A Death in the Family, Old Man and the Sea -- could hardly be described as a "turning instead 'to the construction of wholly imaginary worlds, and to a celebration of the self.'"

Maxine Weiss said...

Irving Wallace, Irwin Shaw, Arthur Hailey, Herman Wouk, William Styron.

Howard Fast? Sidney Sheldon?

What do they all have in common? They are men! When men were writing fiction, society was buying books and reading was a popular pasttime.

Once women took over publishing, nobody reads anymore.

Women---invading, infecting, and lowering every area they infiltrate in on.

If you want to lower or dilute a professional field, or water down an artistic genre....bring in a woman.

Love Maxine

George said...


Publisher sent me a free copy of this book today.

Relative of yours, Professor?

Ann Althouse said...

George: No. I only have one living relative with the last name Althouse: my brother.