Reading Roth on Writing and Reading

by Mark Chmiel

George Searles, editor, Conversations with Philip Roth
Literary Conversation Series
University Press of Mississippi
1992

I settled in this morning with a collection of interviews with Philip Roth, from the bright beginning of his career in  1960 t0 1991, just before he produced a steady stream of powerful books (e.g., Operation Shylock, for one), many of which I read with appreciation throughout the 90s. What follows are passages that reveal his reflections on the art of fiction and the practice of readers.

 

My work does not offer answers. I am trying to represent the experience, the confusion and toughness of certain moral problems. People always ask what’s the message. I think the worst books are the ones with messages. My fiction is about people in trouble.  2

For me, one of the strongest motives for continuing to write fiction is an increasing distrust of “positions,” my own included.  60

For everything in my fiction that connects to something I’ve known personally, there are a hundred things that have no connection, or connections of only the roughest and vaguest sort.  103

You should read my books as fiction, demanding the pleasures that fiction can yield. I have nothing to confess and no one I want to confess to. 121

My job in a work of fiction is not to offer consolation to Jewish sufferers or to mount an attack upon their persecutors or to make the Jewish case to the undecided. 129 

The difficulties  of telling a Jewish story—How should it be told? In what tone? To whom should it be told? To what end? Should it be told at all?  183 

Novels provide readers with something to read. At their best writers change the way readers read.  That seems to me the only realistic expectation. It also seems to me quite enough. Reading novels is a deep and singular pleasure, a gripping and mysterious human activity that does not require any more moral or political justification than sex.  186

Fiction has an obligation to be about those things that we’re too ashamed to talk about with those we trust the most. It isn’t a matter of what we’re ashamed to say in public; why shouldn’t we be ashamed to say things in public?  Why should we make revelations to people who have nothing to do with us?  But it’s the things you don’t even want to say to the people you trust that constitute a big portion of your real life. And I think fiction–at least my kind of fiction–is about that.  209

Everybody in the subway has a subject they can write about. But what do you do with the subject—how you treat the material—is what writing fiction is all about.  210

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If I don’t study a book and think about it in order to talk about it in class, then by and large the book is lost to me; teaching a book is the way I have of taking hold of it and getting the most out of it. 107

I read fiction to be freed from my own suffocatingly narrow perspective on life and to be lured into imaginative sympathy with a fully developed  narrative point of view not my own. It’s the same reason I write. 124

I read all the time when I’m working, usually at night. it’s a way of keeping the circuits open. It’s a way of thinking about my line of work while getting a little rest from the work at hand. It helps inasmuch as it fuels the overall obsession. 164

The best readers come to fiction to be free of all that [cultural] noise, to have set loose in them the consciousness that’s otherwise conditioned and hemmed in by all that isn’t fiction. This is something that every child, smitten by books, understands immediately, though it’s not at all a childish idea about the importance of reading. 186-187

My point is that whatever changes fiction may appear to inspire usually have to do with the agenda of the reader and not the writer. 247