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Deconstructing Philip Roth

May 31, 2018

Late literary giant left much to talk about, says ASU assistant professor

Satirical or sex-obsessed? Self-hating or self-commentary? Of the many ways late author Philip Roth has been described and discussed, the word “complicated” is rarely challenged in debate.  

A paradox of personality, Roth was both revered and reviled in the literary world but nonetheless remained an intriguing figure throughout his decades-long career. 

“I’ve had a lot of colleagues who, quite justifiably, just really dislike Roth,” said Brian Goodman, an assistant professor in Arizona State University’s Department of English. “But I have also been amazed to learn just how relevant Roth still feels to many of my students in their own lives.”

Goodman, whose research uncovered secret surveillance on Roth by Czech police during the 1970s, is among the many now sharing contemplative thoughts on the author in the days since his passing on May 22 at the age of 85. Goodman told ASU Now that regardless of what one might have thought of him, Philip Roth will remain an important figure in American literature.

Question: A lot has been said about Philip Roth and his work in recent days. What have you been thinking about in relation to his passing?

Answer: If you read Philip Roth’s later fiction, it’s clear that Roth had been preparing to die for a long time, and yet I was convinced that he was doomed to live to be 118 — a final, cosmic joke. So, I was caught entirely off guard when he passed away last week. Roth won the National Book Award for "Goodbye, Columbus" almost 60 years ago, and he wrote more than 30 books before he retired. If you were a devoted reader — and there were many — then you watched your own life, along with your country, change along with the shifting voices of his fiction. I’m a bit younger, so my own reading experience was much more condensed, more retrospective and probably more intense. 

Brian Goodman

Q: Why was Philip Roth important as a novelist?

A: Initially, as a young writer, Roth helped transform a relatively marginal cultural positionRoth was a third-generation, assimilated Jew from Newark, New Jersey. into a “universal” predicament for postwar American literature. And even if Roth’s initial vantage point seems somewhat narrow today — and very, very male — Roth has unquestionably served as a model for many other American writers, particularly from immigrant cultures. With "Portnoy’s Complaint" in 1969, he also pushed the boundaries of obscene language and what could be said in a novel. But these very common ways of talking about Roth’s legacy are somewhat limiting. About halfway through his career Roth turned his attention outward, away from the very funny — and sometimes narcissistic — explorations of his own ego. More than any other American novelist I can think of, he was a dedicated and receptive reader of his literary peers, an analyst of his country’s troubled history during the 20th century, and a writer who came to understand the high stakes and incredible ironies of our obsession with storytelling.

Q: What did it mean for Roth to give a voice to so many Central and Eastern European writers in the 1970s?

A: It meant everything. The pivot in Roth’s career happened in Prague. Roth had arrived at a point of personal and creative crisis when he first traveled across the Iron Curtain in search of Franz KafkaFranz Kafka was a Czech-born German writer (1883-1924). He is best known for his 1912 short story "The Metamorphosis."’s ghost. But after he met with living writers in Prague who had been banned from publishing because of their support for reform socialism prior to 1968, he developed one of the most important skills of a great novelist: He learned how to listen. He established a paperback series called “Writers From the Other Europe” that introduced many of the most important writers from the region to American readers, including Milan Kundera, Ludvík Vaculík, Tadeusz Borowski, György Konrád, Danilo Kiš, Bruno Schulz and many others. In addition to influencing a rising generation of American writers, the “Other Europe” series also promoted new ways of imagining the 20th century, from the memory of the Holocaust to the rise of a new human rights politics at the end of the Cold War.

Q: What did your research uncover about Philip Roth?

A: Surprisingly, almost none of Roth’s adventures in the Eastern bloc made it into last week’s obituaries. That’s because much of this remarkable story is just now coming to light. A few years ago, I traveled to Prague and retrieved Roth’s secret police file from the menacingly named Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. After translating the file and digging into Roth’s private papers at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., I was able to reconstruct Roth’s long engagement with writers in the Eastern bloc. In the mid-'70s, Roth traveled to Prague every year until the Czechoslovak government banned him from entering the country. By that point, Roth had established the “Other Europe” series, written an anonymous country report for the writers’ organization PEN, and set up a clandestine financial network that funneled money from prominent American writers to their persecuted counterparts in Czechoslovakia. Roth’s encounter with the “Other Europe” not only changed him as a person and a writer, but it made an immense impact on the lives and careers of his friends across East-Central Europe.

Q: If one were trying to get a sense of who Philip Roth was as a person, which of his books would you recommend reading — and in what order?

A: First of all, I would caution readers against confusing Roth with any of his fictional protagonists, a source of understandable confusion that Roth plays with a lot in his fiction. Instead, I would recommend Roth’s three great counterfactual fantasies, which are each revealing in very different ways. I tell everyone to start with "The Ghost Writer," which I consider to be his masterpiece: a false autobiographical confession wrapped around a risky counterfactual fantasy about Anne Frank. By far Roth’s most autobiographical novel is "The Plot Against America," which imagines a fascist takeover of the United States by devotees to Charles Lindbergh, a leader of the very real America First movement of the 1930s. This terrifying vision is imagined on a very intimate and personal scale. And if you’re pressed for time, Roth’s short and wacky essay “Looking at Kafka” is the best — and funniest — thing ever written about Prague’s greatest and most improbable writer. 

Q: What have been the risks and rewards of teaching Philip Roth?

A: I find the critique leveled against Roth as a “midcentury misogynist” to be largely convincing, particularly in the early phases of his career. My strategy in the classroom has been to be honest about my own ambivalence and introduce the controversies surrounding Roth right up front. So far, it’s actually been a pretty good way to talk about both the possibilities and limits of 20th-century American literature and culture at the end of the semester. For instance, we just read "The Human Stain," which takes place during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and Clinton’s impeachment. Framing our reading of the novel around a discussion of the #MeToo movement opened up entirely new ways of thinking about Roth. In the end, many of my students found "The Human Stain" to be a difficult book to love — this might have even been Roth’s intention — but many of those same students later voted for Roth as the most indispensable writer we read all semester. 

Top photo: A library collection of Philip Roth books. Photo by Suzanne Wilson

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ASU's Piper Center celebrates local writers

May 31, 2018

Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing ramps up outreach initiatives that include classes, readings and events

Getting a bunch of high school students to show up for a poetry reading on a Friday afternoon in the summer is quite a feat. Actually getting them excited about it is another level of accomplishment entirely. Peoria-based poet and Liberty High School English teacher Cody Wilson managed to do both.

Last week at Union Coffee in Peoria, a group of about 20 of his students settled into the bright, industrial-themed space to listen to each other, Wilson and others read their work. On June 4, the Arizona State University alumnus will be reading his work in public again, this time in celebration of the release of his first book of poetry, “Nobody is Ever Missing,” at 6:30 p.m. at Crescent Ballroom in Phoenix.

The book release is being hosted by up-and-coming local publisher Tolsun Books in partnership with ASU’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. The collaboration is a testament to the center’s recommitment to community impact through the ramping up of several outreach initiatives that include classes, readings and events that celebrate and support local writers.

“In some respects, it’s a natural evolution of Piper’s history here in the community,” said Jacob Friedman, Piper Center communications specialist. “For a long time Piper has provided an array of programs and services to writers.”

But when Alberto Rios, ASU Regents' Professor of English and Arizona’s inaugural poet laureate, came on as director in August 2017, he encouraged staff at the center to think even harder about how it could “operate with a bias toward meaning.”

Friedman calls Rios “a poet of the community” because of his long history of engaging Valley residents in his work, as he did last May with students at Dunbar Elementary on a public art project that turned sights into sound in celebration of South Phoenix. He says Rios challenged him and his Piper colleagues to be more mindful about how they could get the most out of their resources while creating the greatest good and having the largest impact.

“To think about how we can serve you, not even as a whole writer, but as a whole person. How can we serve you socially, how can we serve you culturally, how can we serve you professionally? [It’s about] taking that larger approach,” Friedman said.

For the past 15 years, the Piper Center has hosted an annual conference, Desert Nights, Rising Stars, and each year, it awards scholarships to students of Maricopa community colleges and local educators to attend. This year, Wilson was chosen as the recipient of the Arizona Educator Scholarship.

“[The conference] was awesome,” Wilson said. “There’s a level of approachability in what the Piper Center offers, and I really appreciate all of the different opportunities — I got to meet local writers as well as established writers.”

At 27 years old, with an armful of tattoos and a laid-back personality emphasized by his casual T-shirt-and-jeans approach to fashion, Wilson doesn’t fit the mold of a typical high school teacher — and his students love him for it.

“He finds this way of connecting with his students that is so important, and the way he talks about poetry and life in general, I feel like it’s very important for a young, impressionable mind, especially in a high school setting,” said Manny Timm, a recent Liberty High School graduate.

The decision to award the Piper scholarship to Wilson was “not simply an investment in an individual writer but somebody who’s going to take that value and bring it back to their community,” Friedman said.

The way in which Wilson was able to do that was on full display at Union Coffee last week, where Megan Bromley, an ASU senior and former student of Wilson’s, joined the festivities. A creative writing and astrobiology double major, Bromley read a poem she’d written to the asteroid Psyche. (ASU is leading a NASA mission to visit the all-metal space object.)

“As somebody who studies STEM and the arts, I think that there are skills in both that are really vital in leading a life that is fulfilling on multiple fronts,” Bromley said.

And as someone who was educated in the Peoria school district, then went on to ASU and is still active in the community’s literary scene, Bromley mirrors the trajectory of her former teacher in a way that Friedman hopes the Piper Center can continue to facilitate.

“These individuals are on a continuum.” Friedman said, “These are the future visiting writers.”

Tolsun Books founders David and Brandi Pischke, both local teachers, were also on hand at Union Coffee. The pair launched the small press in March of this year to address what they saw as a lacking literary scene in the Phoenix area, and it already has an impressive roster of authors and publications.

“There are some really talented people who are here and have something to say and have a unique voice, and this is a unique place,” Brandi Pischke said. “So we thought it would be a great idea to bring a publication here and feature some amazing local artists like Cody.”

But they weren’t expecting it to grow so quickly.

“We’re moving way faster than we thought,” David Pischke said.

Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Friedman knows from personal experience, as the founder and editor-in-chief of the independent literary magazine Four Chambers, which recently went on an indefinite hiatus, just how “hard and draining” it can be. So, acting on behalf of Piper Center, he offered to partner with Tolsun Books to help promote and co-host Wilson’s upcoming book release.

“I think these grass-roots organizations are really the lifeblood and the heart of the literary community here in Phoenix,” Friedman said.

However, he added, such small organizations “cannot accomplish their goals without structure and support from a larger institution. … As a larger institution, Piper can serve that role, of not just being presenters of content but supporting writers working in the Valley, providing them with professional development opportunities … mentorships [and more]. We are not here to be in the spotlight — we are here to shine a light on others and increase the value of what they’re already doing.”

Piper’s successful Distinguished Visiting Writer Series has brought authors such as Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith and Marlon James to smaller audiences on ASU’s Tempe campus. But the center’s longstanding relationships with several local event spaces and bookstores, such as Crescent Ballroom, Valley Bar and Changing Hands, means they’re also able to present lesser-known local authors like Wilson to a wider audience.

Bringing distinguished authors to ASU is important, Friedman said, “but it’s also important for us to be presenting individuals who might only have a few books out. Cody Wilson’s event is really the strongest example of this, where we want to be able to serve the larger community here in Phoenix.”

Another example is how the center is working to expand the Desert Nights, Rising Stars conference to be more inclusive to those outside of ASU, by making it more affordable and flexible for people’s schedules. For the first time next year, it will feature a free exhibitors' fair, where 30–40 local writers and community organizations will showcase their work and wares.

This fall, the center is partnering with Phoenix’s Open Air Market for a day of literary programming, as well as downtown Phoenix’s cinephile haven FilmBar to present eight films inspired by poetry. A fresh schedule of classes will also be announced soon, as will projects with Rios and the ASU creative writing student-helmed literary journal Hayden’s Ferry Review.

“Piper is a nationally recognized literary institution, but I think it’s important to maintain a focus on the local community and creating networks and points of exchange there,” Friedman said.

“There are all these places with really well-established traditions of culture and arts, but I think Phoenix is in a different place for a few reasons — because of its political climate, because of its history, in terms of its newness and ongoing development … So I think creating arts and cultural programming and educational opportunities is not just a luxury … it’s actually a step towards having a more socially conscious and responsible community as a whole.”

Top photo: ASU alumnus and Liberty High School English teacher Cody Wilson reads from his newly published book, “Nobody is Ever Missing," during a poetry reading at Union Coffee in Peoria, Arizona, on May 25. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now