How to Review Roth (Or Oates, Updike, Etc.)

Unless you’re a book reviewer who writes only about books by first-time or “debut” authors, sooner or later you’ll probably encounter a methodological question: How much of an author’s previously published work should you have read before rendering a critical take on his or her newest book? And when the new book in question comes from someone as prolific as Joyce Carol Oates or Philip Roth, and assuming you won’t have managed to read ALL the author’s previous books before your editor needs your review, which books should you read? Does it matter?

As you may know, Joyce Carol Oates does indeed have a new book out, and Philip Roth’s next novel, Indignation, will be published this fall. Thanks to Steve Pollak, I’ve just discovered that Wyatt Mason is thinking ahead and wondering precisely “how much of Roth’s prior work [reviewers] will feel they should read before passing judgment on his latest effort?”

Mason continues:

Roth’s productivity, with its now-annual alarms, begs that a critic ask a few cumbersome questions that apply when approaching the work of any number of contemporary authors. Oates, Updike, Munro, Marías, Kundera, Coetzee, McEwan, T. C. Boyle, Amis, Pynchon, DeLillo, Rushdie: when reviewing the work of such generative authors, how familiar should the critic be with such writers’ earlier output? Should one have read, when sitting down to review Saturday or The Empress of Florence or My Sister, My Love, their writers’ other books? If not, why? If so, how many?

With Roth, a reader familiar with only Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint will necessarily form a very different picture of the preoccupations, tendencies, and techniques of the author in question than will a reader intimate with The Counterlife and Operation Shylock (or, alternately, The Breast and “The Prague Orgy”—one can, with Roth, produce a baker’s dozen of such pairs).

A knowledge of the first pair (Columbus/Complaint) alone would lead one to describe Roth as an attentive domestic realist, a trusting realist, one who employs various modes of literary realism (the lyric; the satiric) to probe various conventions of human behavior. The second pair (Counterlife/Shylock), though, would suggest a very different writer, one fascinated with form but not fully trusting of it, one who makes form as much a part of his story as character—who makes form, if not quite a character in the novel, a leading characteristic of the novel. And the last pair (Breast/Orgy) might suggest another author still, a miniaturist, one seeking to depict people trapped by impossible circumstances, whether fanciful or political.

Much as the historian assigned to review, say, Saul Friedlander’s two-volume Nazi Germany and the Jews would be expected to have read a library of similar studies to be deemed a reliable arbiter, a critic assigned a novel by an established writer should bring to bear not merely a knowledge of The Novel but a knowledge of that particular writer’s engagement with the form. And although Roth and the writers listed above, owing to decades of industry, have made a broad knowledge of their work impractical to acquire, such knowledge, precisely because of its increasing rarity, becomes, for a critic, that much more essential to possess.

What do you think, practicing writers? Are any of you planning reviews of the new Oates or Roth books? How will you handle these questions? And what do you think of the suggestion that, like scholars who must be acquainted with the prevailing scholarship on a subject in order to write a reputable review of a new book, imaginative writers should possess analogous expertise?

2 thoughts on “How to Review Roth (Or Oates, Updike, Etc.)

  1. Maggie May says:

    this is a fascinating and many headed topic. i’ve read a bit from authors in the last year who have written about their frustrations with reviews- notably John Irving, who is a critic of critics, and who has written book reviews himself. i think he would say that the most important point is to have read the ENTIRE book you are reviewing, and not just pieces or parts or skipping over paragraphs that lose you. he asserts that many reviewers have not read the entire book they are reviewing.

    carol oates (so excited to read her newest, love her!) has a book with her essays and reviews, and if you read it you’ll see she has read most, if not all, the works of the authors she discusses.

    philip roth is coming out with a new book ,i had no idea! i agree that his work is widely varying, but he is not typical in that regard, his genius is partly sprung from his mastery of different forms. portnoy, for example, is a book with all character and little detail compared to american pastoral, which is crammed with dates and names and places etc.

    where as i think JCO has stayed pretty true to style and form when it comes to the novel.

  2. Erika D. says:

    Thanks for the comments, Maggie May. You’ve made me think some more about JCO. Her new novel, for instance, does seem to be inspired by some “true” events (in this case, the death of JonBenet Ramsey), and a reviewer could certainly talk about it in the context of some of JCO’s previous books that seem similarly rooted in “real” occurrences/people. I’ve been meaning to get to her book of essays/reviews. Thanks for the reminder!

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