A Question for a Friday Afternoon

“Everything changes everything—nobody argues with that. My point is that whatever changes fiction may appear to inspire have usually to do with the goals of the reader and not of the writer.”
— Philip Roth, Reading Myself and Others

Last Friday night, at a friend’s graduation party, I found myself in a fascinating conversation with a slightly drunk political science professor who also happens to be a socialist. Somehow we got on the subject of Philip Roth, and the professor, a short-ish Jew born and raised in an Italian neighborhood of Brooklyn, told me: “Oh, Darren” — he was in that sentimental stage of inebriation — “I love the way the man writes. His novels are a joy to read. But…” His right thumb and fore-finger rested on his chin. “…his politics, I don’t like.”

The professor and I had a lot to talk about.

I’ve been working lately on a chapter for a new, book-length study of Roth’s career. My assignment is to survey his non-fiction, which has given me reason to read through five decades of his interviews, essays, and reviews. What I have found most striking is the consistency with which Roth has pointed to some mythic ability of the “imagination” to transcend the shifting demands of ideology. At his most extreme (some would say absurd), he has even made comments like the one above, arguing that the artist has no moral obligation other than creating an accurate representation of reality, in all its rich ambiguity and complexity.

My knee-jerk reaction is to call him full-o’-shit (and a reactionary, at that) — and I can think of countless examples of particular works of art that have reshaped my own relationship with the world — but I wonder how much truth there is to his claim. Did those works affect me so profoundly because of my particular motivations at that particular moment, or because of the artist’s genius? Some combination of the two, I guess.