When authors reach a certain age and status in the literary world, academics often struggle to produce trenchant scholarship on their work. The first reason is that many fall prey to a “respectful” hesitancy to criticise, and instead simply aim to guess what the author’s intentions and motivations might have been. The second is that a glut of work on the author makes it increasingly difficult to produce anything original. Throw in the pressure placed on academics to publish, for instance after funded visits to archives, and the results can sometimes seem a little desperate.
All this can be seen in Philip Roth: Fiction and Power. In the opening section, Patrick Hayes offers some genuinely illuminating insights on the context offered by Roth’s university years. Roth, he argues, was influenced variously by Nietzschean thought, Hegelianism, the work of Lionel Trilling and deconstruction. He uses these contexts to support his arguments concerning Roth’s exploration of the “ethical value of literature”. In his discussion of earlier works such as Goodbye, Columbus and Letting Go, Hayes illustrates several of his points well with close reference to the Philip Roth Papers held at the Library of Congress in Washington DC.
However, the mid-section of the book is where the two pitfalls noted above become all too apparent. The symptoms are as follows: Hayes always speaks for “the reader’s” reactions – “disgusted and seduced”, “taking pleasure”, “seduced into an appreciation” – when clearly he should be speaking only for himself on matters of personal taste. All the while, Hayes is simply guessing what Roth’s intentions are, based on what he has found in Roth’s own archive materials. Having used the opening section to build a conceptual framework through which to understand Roth’s work, Hayes then deploys this as a buttress against criticism of Roth. Most tellingly, he refers to feminist readings of Roth’s work only when he flags up an example of a reading in which Roth is praised, blatantly ignoring the vast corpus of scholarship that has criticised Roth and his work on feminist grounds.
Such unwillingness to try to unsettle Roth’s literary reputation is accompanied by frequent, gushing praise, for instance when Hayes notes that some of the “theory” engaged with in Roth’s work is simply “not adequate for the scope and ambition of [Roth’s] oeuvre”. Another jarring aspect is that although in the second half of the book Roth is treated as a Jewish-American author and his work is assessed in light of that heritage, this aspect goes virtually unmentioned in the first half. Finally, in the last chapter, Hayes moves away from tying his opinions to archive materials that show what Roth actually read and engaged with, and instead bases his arguments on the assumption that Roth was aware of the work of Julia Kristeva and Georges Bataille “through his friendship” with Philippe Sollers.
The scholarship here is one-sided, uneven and forced, and one must be willing to seek out the positives. To my mind, this book is a telling example of everything that is wrong with this area of academic writing. Sadly, given the current trend of literary criticism on Roth, I expect to see more of the same in the near future.
Philip Roth: Fiction and Power
By Patrick Hayes
Oxford University Press, 2pp, £55.00
Published 19 June 2014