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Words of the Week

“It’s been four months now since Philip Roth died, long enough in our fast-paced media world that all the eloquent and moving obituaries have largely dissolved into a broader consensus of the kind of writer he was, our culture’s agreed-upon summation of his legacy. It was The New York Times that I think best articulated this mainstream view

Roth was the last front-rank survivor of a generation of fecund and authoritative and, yes, white and male noveliststhe others included John Updike, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellowwho helped define American experience in the second half of the 20th century.

Yet I could never see Roth as simply a ‘white’ novelist. Certainly, he was a ‘male”’novelist, and like all the men on that list his he was to some degree problematic in the way he depicted women (though nowhere near the level of Norman Mailer). But to me, it felt wrong to call someone whose novels were so deeply concerned with Jewish identity ‘white’ (the same is true of Saul Bellow, though that deserves a separate blog post). The truth is, Roth wrote about identity and assimilation as powerfully as any writer of color, and as a Muslim American growing up in a post-9/11 America, I often saw myself in his novels and his characters.”

Read the rest of Aatif Rashid’s “Was Philip Roth a White Author?” over on the Kenyon Review blog.

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  1. I’m currently teaching an Adult education class at a local Conservative synagogue, which is titled “Portnoy on Portnoy: Discussing Philip Roth z”l”. I spent the whole summer reading (and re-reading) his books. I entered college in 1969, the same year “Portnoy” was published; how many new acquaintances responded to my name with “have any complaints?” I am a devotee of Roth, the writer, the American, the Jew. I do not think he was a misogynist; I think he saw women as powerful, mysterious, maybe even a little frightening. His male characters are also complex. It’s a disgrace he did not win the Nobel, although he won everything else.

    • Thank you *so* much for this comment. I feel as though you and I need to have a longer conversation! One of the reasons I didn’t opine extensively about Roth when he passed is that I haven’t read *all* of his books. I can’t say that PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT is my favorite among the books that I *have* read, or that I intend to read THE BREAST anytime soon. But I feel so indebted and connected to him nonetheless. I was troubled by some of what I saw written last spring, and as I (literally) said on Twitter just before seeing this comment of yours, I am so grateful to Aatif Rashid for sharing his incredibly important perspective.

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