Philip Roth, The New Yorker and Me

A few weeks ago The New Yorker published an essay by Philip Roth in which the last paragraph, a long one, begins: "A Newark Jew - why not? But an American Jew? A Jewish American. . ." He ends the paragraph and the piece by saying, "As a novelist, I think of myself. . . as a free American . . .writing in the rich native tongue by which I am possessed."

I was thrilled to read this, to have the imprimatur of as great a writer as Roth on what I myself believe, and in gratitude wrote a Letter to the Editor, presenting myself as an unmodified American writer.

My letter, when it appeared in the June 26th issue, was considerably shortened and though it contained the nut of what I was saying, there wasn't space enough to amplify my point, or points. Here is the original:

Philip Roth's essay on "American Names" ends on a small note, how you call yourself, and by this reminds us how far afield we are from the time when we were all unhyphenated Americans. My parents came from Central Europe in 1938, but I was simply American. In the early 'sixties I went to England, a young writer, and met other writers who, to my amazement, defined themselves as Jews. Brian Glanville, writer of tough football novels. Harold Pinter. I went to a party and a woman named Miranda Rothschild ran over to embrace me and call me "sister." I thought they were all nuts. A close friend, Errol John, a Trinidadian actor (Othello at the Old Vic) and playwright, winner of the Observer Prize for Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, walked off a BBC panel that demanded to know his views on racism in the U.S. "I am a writer, not a politician," he said. Brigid Brophy, a well-regarded critic, reviewed a book of mine for The New Statesman, (later reprinted in a book collection of what were considered seminal essays), saying that if my photo hadn't been on the jacket and my first name only an initial, no one could have told my age or sex. That's what we were aiming for, we writers, and it was the highest praise: to be indistinguishable from the worlds we made and lived in. The current practice of qualifying "American" by race, background, sex or anything else, growing ever more divisive under our present government, takes away our wholeness and leaves us (almost) as empty as our leaders.

You can google the shorter version published in the magazine. Basically, I was trying to make two points, about the unhyphenated American and the unhyphenated writer. Writers of Roth's generation, those born in and just after the Second World War, took two things for granted: 1) the American dream (we are all Americans, no matter what we look like, where we came from and all that rot) and 2) the belief that a work of art is a thing in itself, not to be explained or approached as an artifact produced by such and such a member of such and such a sub group at a particular time or location. A novel, if it succeeds, reminds us of no one so much as ourselves: we learn from it, and sometimes understand ourselves better. Reading is a way of traveling though both inner and outer space. It doesn't matter a damn if we share the same sexual orientation or racial characteristics, hair color or nose shape; whether we do or don't believe in anything beyond or within ourselves; what matters is that the work of art leads us somewhere new, gives a fresh perspective, entertains, enlightens or perhaps transforms us.

I was having this conversation last week at Pete's Tavern over a couple of great and greasy burgers with a brilliant literary agent. "Most authors now want that," she said, "they want to be identified as women or Jews or addicts or whatever the main selling point is."

I was aghast. "You're kidding."

She shook her head. "No. Yes. It's what the writers want, and the publishers want, and the sales reps want. It's what people buy."

Everything is about sales. It's always been about sales to those in the business of publishing and selling books. And even writers want to make money. But to many authors the act of writing - which is discovery as well as invention - often serves as its own reward. I have writer friends who say (as I do), I can't believe anyone would actually PAY me for doing this, because writing is living and we can't think of anything we'd rather do.

Gathering information is one thing, but it isn't literature and it doesn't provide you with a new frame of reference or reality. Read everything you can find about whales, but you won't find Ahab or Starbuck or Moby Dick; you won't have the adventure of a lifetime in the contest between good and evil. Study intellectual trends of the early 20th century, illness, the Alpine air of Switzerland, but you will not be transformed by Hans Castorp as you ascend The Magic Mountain. Yet readers and (if my agent friend is right, even writers) now regard a book, any book, as simply a form of processing information, and the industry responds to the book buyer's supposed pursuit: because I am a lesbian, I want or read about lesbians by a lesbian, or: because I am fat, I want to read about fat people by a fat person.

When Philip Roth says I am an American, or I am a writer, the nearly boundless category gives him all the freedom in the world. He defines himself as American writer because the language he uses to write is American - not French or Chinese or even British - just as a painter in oils will define herself as that, and not a watercolorist. It's a description of the medium or the materials used in composing the piece. A Jewish writer, a Jewish- American writer (or a woman writer) - these are caricatures, stereotypes. They claim to define but instead mislead, because though a writer's life may provide material for the work, it isn't the particulars of that life that matters, it's the work. And the work succeeds through its universality. Ever since Cervantes blended into Don Quixote, writers have created worlds shaped out of their own experience, other people's stories and thin air, their selfhood on hold as they become the conduit that brings the book into being.

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