The phrase “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” has been a rallying cry in music since Neil Young crooned it over 30 years ago. But it’s writers who seem to best embody the sentiment: the burnouts who did themselves in, like Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf, tend to be romanticized long after their deaths by those who believe an untimely end completes some sort of narrative of depression; the ones who fade, the writers who keep pushing out words till their last breath, may not be eulogized, but at least they get to spend their golden years doing what they (presumably) love.
Last month, Philip Roth, one of America’s greatest living writers and its reigning curmudgeon, took a very different route toward career conclusion: he quit. The 79-year-old author of 27 novels, dozens of short stories and countless essays, and the recipient of nearly every major literary award save the Nobel Prize, told an interviewer for the French publication Les Inrocks, “To tell you the truth, I’m done.” His 2010 novel Nemesis would be his last book.
Surprisingly, it took a month for the American media to pick up on the news that one of its literary lions was putting down his pen. Salon “broke” the news last week by using an Internet program to translate Mr. Roth’s quotes into English. And then things got stranger: there was no big blowout to celebrate a life in letters, no gold watch presented to the retiree, no jersey hung from the rafters. His retirement was a quiet affair—he had done enough, he said, and didn’t want to bang out books anymore. He is one of the rare novelists able to say, “I studied, I taught, I wrote and I read. With the exclusion of almost everything else. Enough is enough!”
But if you’re one of the most acclaimed authors alive, the type who can walk into a bookstore and grab five new works of fiction with a blurb claiming the author is influenced by your work, does it really matter, after all this time, that you want to stop? For most writers, the answer would be no; everybody deserves to call it quits on his own terms, and it’s better to ride into the sunset than to write garbage books simply because you’re a household name. But in the case of Mr. Roth, there is something meaningful in his quiet exit. It closes the door on the Golden Era of Jewish-American Literature.
To say that the postwar era has been good for Jewish writers is an understatement. Jewish-American literature after the Second World War has both changed the course of American letters and helped forge a new, post-Holocaust Jewish identity. Mr. Roth is part of the school of novelists, poets, playwrights, essayists and songwriters that includes Grace Paley, Norman Mailer, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Bernard Malamud, Leonard Cohen, Cynthia Ozick, Edward Lewis Wallant, Arthur Miller, Joseph Heller, Leonard Michaels and the Canadian-born, American-raised Saul Bellow, whose opening line to his 1953 breakout novel The Adventures of Augie March is not only of the same iconic stature as Moby-Dick’s “Call me Ishmael” but reads like a rallying cry for Jewish assimilation just a few years removed from Hitler’s massacre: “I am an American, Chicago born.”
In one sense, Mr. Roth’s exit is merely symbolic. The light of the Golden Age has been fading for years—but his announcement is an extinguishing of the embers. In 1977, several years before Mr. Roth had published a single Zuckerman novel, Irving Howe, another of the great Jewish-American intellectual voices, wrote that “American Jewish fiction has probably moved past its high point.” He went on to say that most American Jewish writing up until that point had drawn heavily from the immigrant experience, that it “must suffer a depletion of recourses, a thinning-out of materials and memories.” Howe believed that Jewish writers had become removed from centuries of suffering, and the mother tongue of Yiddish was being forgotten. Mr. Roth himself was the child of first-generation American parents, but the shtetl was never far behind. His earlier writing, along with the work of many of his contemporaries, gives a glimpse into the growing pains of a culture that was finally able to stop worrying about Spanish Inquisitions, pogroms, Hitler.
But Philip Roth’s retirement is significant because he is the Jewish-American writer. His lackluster books from the last decade or so notwithstanding, his body of work represents the most extensive document of the Jewish experience in postwar America. The short story “Defenders of the Faith,” collected in his first book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959) is about a Jewish soldier who tries to manipulate his sergeant—a fellow Jew—by preying on their shared ethnic backgrounds to keep from getting shipped off to the Pacific. It caused an uproar in the Jewish community for its portrayal of the soldier, Sheldon Grossbart, which many felt upheld the long-standing stereotype that Jews are cunning and greedy. Mr. Roth saw it differently, stating in 1963 that his character was “represented not as the stereotype of the Jew, but the Jew who acts like the stereotype, offering back to his enemies their vision of him[.]”
Six years later came the commercial success of Portnoy’s Complaint, a novel that prompted its own share of controversy. Life magazine pointed to “the book’s pungent language” and “its preoccupations, foremost among which is the terrible sin of onanism.” Alexander Portnoy masturbating with a piece of raw liver was on par with anything Lenny Bruce had thought up. After that book, Mr. Roth churned out at least one great novel in every decade since the release of Goodbye, Columbus. He held up the center of American fiction, Jewish or otherwise.
So what can we expect in his absence? Mr. Roth’s announcement comes at a time when post-Golden Age American Jewish literature is reaching its own awkward adolescence. The compulsive masturbation in Portnoy’s Complaint made subversion the centerpiece of Mr. Roth’s style, and it seems as if today’s younger American-born Jewish writers are trying to one-up his crudeness. The title story of Nathan Englander’s 2012 collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank focuses on two Jewish couples, one Hasidic and the other secular, getting high and drunk and playing the “Anne Frank game”: they try to guess which of their gentile neighbors would hide them in the event of a second Holocaust. The entire book follows Jewish characters transforming from victim to victimizers in a far less subtle way than Sheldon Grossbart in “Defenders of the Faith.” But Mr. Englander’s “Anne Frank game” is tame in comparison with Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy, a novel, also released earlier this year, about an everyday schmuck named Solomon Kugel. In it, our David Kepesh-esque antihero buys a farmhouse and finds, to his surprise, that a woman who claims to be Anne Frank is alive and living in his attic. This is a literary gotcha at least comparable with the absurdity of Mr. Roth’s novella The Breast, in which Kepesh wakes up to discover he has turned into, well, a 155-pound breast. (An Anne Frank-like character also appears in Mr. Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1979 novel The Ghost Writer.) But after the initial shock value, the obviousness of Mr. Auslander’s metaphor—that Jews are unable to move past the systematic death of six million of their people—grows stale. Reviews of the book were mixed, but many of them cited Philip Roth as an influence.
So what, exactly, does it mean to be influenced by Philip Roth? His body of work is so diverse that he’s a presence every writer must assimilate and, if successful, live down. Joshua Cohen’s 800-page 2010 novel Witz begins with a Rothian gimmick—the protagonist is the last Jew on Earth after a mysterious plague wipes out the world’s chosen people, making him a bizarre update of the solitary but virile man who inhabits so much of Mr. Roth’s fiction. But from there the book is more concerned with language itself, a stream of consciousness of made-up words and impenetrable sentences; it reads, at times, like a deliberate swipe at what Mr. Roth called, in his 1963 essay “Writing About Jews,” the “promiscuous instincts” of modern man.
Stepping away from his more obvious descendants, it becomes clear how inescapable Mr. Roth’s style has become. At a glance, Sheila Heti, a Canadian of Hungarian-Jewish descent, whose most recent novel, How Should a Person Be?, includes, more than once, the decidedly anti-Rothian dismissal “just another man who wants to teach me something,” does not seem a likely candidate for inheriting Mr. Roth’s mantle. But her book is filled, even unconsciously, with Rothian gestures. First, there’s the graphic sex. Consider the two writers’ dueling takes on fellatio. Mr. Roth, from My Life As a Man: “Her eyes leveled on his exposed member and her tongue out and moving. ‘I want to be your whore,’ she whispered to him (without prompting too), while on the back terrace her Mother told his mother how adorable Sharon looked in the winter coat they’d bought for her that afternoon.” Ms. Heti: “I know boyfriends get really excited when they can touch the soft flesh at the back of your throat. At these times, I just try to breathe through my nose and not throw up on their cock. I did vomit a little the other day, but I kept right on sucking.” Then there is the blurring of fiction and autobiography, a theme that haunts many contemporary novelists. “Sheila Heti” is the protagonist of How Should a Person Be?, just as “Philip Roth” is the hero of The Plot Against America, navigating the halls of Weequahic High School, where the real Philip Roth got a diploma.
The reviews of Ms. Heti’s novel—and there were plenty—did not lump her into this tricky category of Jewish Fiction, and certainly didn’t mention Mr. Roth, whose impress ranges from obvious to subliminal in most contemporary fiction. There is still a lingering obsession with what makes a Jewish writer or a Jewish book—an idea that Mr. Roth helped form—but his exit from the literary world certainly puts an end to the era of the Jewish Writer as we know it. He may not have been as well known without the visibility awarded to a Jew writing about Jews in the years after World War II, but as a lesson to anybody who tries to label himself or herself a Jewish Writer in these post-Roth years, Mr. Roth’s work will be remembered for its quality first. Perhaps this is his greatest achievement. He made Jewish fiction mainstream, allowing Jewish writers to focus on something other than just being Jewish.