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10 Things I Learned As a Writer From Philip Roth

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Philip Roth, surely one of our most talented and ambitious American writers, just turned 80. PBS will share his life story with us Friday, March 29, in Philip Roth: Unmasked, a 90-minute documentary in their Masters Series.

Yet as a recent MFA graduate and as a teacher of fiction in an MFA program, I don't hear Roth being discussed among emerging writers (who do seem to read Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, and Don DeLillo -- other writers canonized in recent literary surveys). I'm limited to sharing my fiercest Roth mania with older readers who are often but not always Jewish -- fans perhaps of Bellow and Updike rather than Junot Diaz and Jennifer Egan. To those Americans, but especially to those younger writers who are missing the boat, I want to say: Read Roth. Learn from his oeuvre and from his life, and from how the two have intersected. Learn how a writer can keep pace with America and tell its story as well as his own, again and again.

Here's my top 10 list of what I have personally learned from the Newark Master.

1. Start simply -- and use scaffolds.
The main novella in Goodbye Columbus, Roth's debut and winner of the 1960 National Book Award, clocks in at a mere 136 pages. That's about 40,000 words, or 10,000 words less than Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby, a book which Goodbye Columbus intriguingly resembles. Both slim novels tell of the "crowded events of a single summer" (in the words of scholar N. Macleod) as told by young, unformed narrators who are "imaginative orphans," learning about love and loss, class and culture in an America of a vividly recalled time period. Both novels are simply structured, with the familiar patterns of summer offering a crucial scaffold. Later authors took note. Michael Chabon, one year younger than Roth when his own debut novel, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, was published in 1988, explicitly modeled that novel on the temporal structure and themes of both Gatsby and Goodbye Columbus. As Picasso said, "Bad artists copy, good artists steal."

2. It's OK to upset mom and dad.
Every writer risks self-censorship long before they risk censorship from the outside world. Every writer asks the question, "What will Aunt Gilda think?" Roth decided from the beginning that it didn't matter. If he can write about masturbating in liver, you -- apprentice writer -- can write about anything.

3. Use their rage -- and yours.
While his parents clearly didn't disown him, the Jewish community resented Roth for revealing their funny foibles, and some reviewers labeled him a self-hating Jew. Roth's reaction, paraphrased: "You thought that was something? Just wait!" In a 1984 Paris Review interview with Hermione Lee, Roth said his Jewish readers had "never really got off my ass for publishing Goodbye, Columbus, which was considered in some circles to be my Mein Kampf." By the time he published his fourth novel, the scandalous Portnoy's Complaint (source of the liver anecdote above), he had learned to turn criticism and controversy into rocket fuel. Asked by Lee if he ever wrote with a Roth reader in mind, the author said "No. I occasionally have an anti-Roth reader in mind. I think, 'How he is going to hate this!' That can be just the encouragement I need."

4. Find your way into that place where reality and invention overlap.
Live, observe, imagine; at some point, the imagination starts displacing the real. In Ghost Writer (1979), one of my all-time favorite Roth novels, young aspiring writer Nathan Zuckerman begins to believe that a woman, Amy Bellette, is really Anne Frank, still alive and hiding under a false identity, and having an affair with an older author Zuckerman idolizes. The descent into this skewed fantasy, instigated by a visit to the house of the revered mentor, tells us all we need to know about how a novelist's ideas -- and identity -- form. The self-invention of Amy Bellette, nestled within the authorial self-creation of Zuckerman, is the lead-in to an entire series of self-referential Zuckerman novels exploring themes of both identity and delusion, rising to postmodernist heights of playfulness and absurdity.

5. You are your own best material.
The criticism of Roth's self-reflective tendencies started in the very beginning and continued for 50 years. In 2011, judge Carmen Callil quit the panel in a snit rather than give her blessing to Roth's receipt of the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement in fiction, protesting "he goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It's as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe." There's a trove of scholarship available to prove Roth has written far more deeply and thoughtfully than Callil admits. Scholarship aside: "Humorless judge, just suck it."

6. When you write beyond "you," it gets even better.
And still, we fans who loved Roth when he was writing about -- well, mainly about Roth --treasure his later phase, when he struck out for new temporal, geographical, and thematic territory. A riveting alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh is elected president, in The Plot Against America. Another plunge into the highly relevant past, examining 1960s domestic terrorism, in American Pastoral.

7. Success is the best revenge.
In the middle of his long career, Roth was considered washed up and played out, and even some of Roth's peers said as much in print. Around the same time, he was wallowing in health problems and an unhappy marriage to Claire Bloom. They divorced in 1994 and a year later, she published the details of their shared misery in a memoir. Roth rebounded. Beginning in 1997 he published three of his strongest and least self-obsessed novels: American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain. His pace quickened to one novel every single year between 2006 and 2010. Roth wasn't just prolific in his 60s and 70s: he was writing better than ever, even the naysayers agreed.

8. Nothing is sacred, and nothing is too painful.
Race, religion, Israel, Jewish mothers, good sex, bad sex. Aging, back pain, hateful marriages, death. All worthy of a few million published words. Is Roth politically incorrect? Yes. Misogynistic? Some women say so. I'm not one of them. Nor do I expect to appreciate all of his books equally.

9. They won't always reward you.
Being dissed is surely familiar to Roth by now. The Pulitzer Board overrode the decision of the Pulitzer committee and deprived Roth of the prize in 1980 for Ghost Writer. Most significantly, he still hasn't gotten the Nobel Prize, a fact frequently mentioned as Roth nears the end of his prolific life. But it's not really about the prizes, is it? Roth, who has won scads of them, says they're "childish." Maybe so, and still...

10. Keep reading.
What bothered me more than Philip Roth's recent announcement that he would stop writing was his earlier claim, in 2011, that he'd stopped reading literary fiction altogether. Whether that was an exaggeration or misquotation, no matter. Because he is still reading, and in a recent interview, publicly recommended Louise's Erdrich The Round House, which he called "marvelous." At his 80th birthday party last week, Erdrich returned the favor when she toasted him in Ojibwe, giving him the Indian name "Everlasting Man of Opposites."

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Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Detour and The Spanish Bow. She teaches in the low-residency MFA program at University of Alaska Anchorage. Her website is www.romanolax.com.

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