How Philip Roth came to embrace the contradictions of a national identity

171113_r30894Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker:

Philip Roth’s new collection of nonfiction, mostly writing about writing and about other writers, is called, with Rothian bluntness, “Why Write?” (Library of America). It’s the first nonfiction collection Roth has produced in many years, though some pieces in it have appeared in two previous volumes, “Reading Myself and Others” and “Shop Talk.” Where John Updike, his competitive partner in a half-century literary marathon—in which each always had the other alongside, stride by stride, shedding books like perspiration—produced eight doorstop-size volumes of reviews, essays, jeux d’esprit, citations, and general ponderations, Roth ceased writing regularly about writing sometime in the mid-seventies. Since then, there have been the slightly beleaguered interview when a new book came out, the carefully wrought “conversations” in support of writers he admired, particularly embattled Eastern European ones, and, after his “retirement” from writing, a few years ago, a series of valedictory addresses offered in a valedictorian’s tone.

This turning away from topical nonfiction was not an inevitable development. If our enigmatic oracles—Thomas Pynchon, say, or Cormac McCarthy—weighed in too often on general literary and political topics, they would cease to be enigmatic, and oracular. But Roth, from early on, was a natural essayist and even an editorialist, a man with a taste and a gift for argument, with much to say about the passing scene as it passed. (A 1960 Commentary piece, “Writing American Fiction,” about a murder in Chicago and the impossibility of the writer’s imagination matching American reality, is a classic of that magazine’s high period.) He remains engaged, so much so that a mischievous essayist might accuse Roth of being an essayist manqué, looking for chances to interpolate essays in novels.

more here.