A Novelist's Take On Modern Life

The passages below can be found in Philip Roth’s Why Write? Collected Nonfiction 1960-2013 (The Library of America, 2017), pp. 28, 30, 32, 127, 133, 377, 382.

Contemporary America

"Very little truthfulness anywhere, antagonism everywhere, so much calculated to disgust, the gigantic hypocrisies, no holding fierce passions at bay, the ordinary viciousness you can see just by pressing the remote, explosive weapons in the hands of creeps, the gloomy tabulation of unspeakable violent events, the unceasing despoliation of the biosphere for profit, surveillance overkill that will only grow worse, great concentrations of wealth financing the most undemocratic malevolents around, science illiterates still fighting the Scopes trial eighty-nine years on, economic inequities the size of the Ritz, indebtedness on everyone's tail, families not knowing how bad things can get, money being squeezed out of every last thing -- that frenzy -- and (by no means new) government hardly by the people through representative democracy but rather by the great financial interests, the old American plutocracy worse than ever."

The problem of how to live in this world

“Since madness is undesirable and sainthood, for most of us, out of the question, the problem of how to live in this world is by no means answered; unless the answer is that one cannot…There is in [J.D.] Salinger the suggestion that mysticism is a possible road to salvation; at least some of his characters respond well to an intensified, emotional religious belief. Now my own reading in Zen is minuscule, but as I understand it from Salinger, the deeper we go into this world, the further we can get away from it. If you contemplate a potato long enough, it stops being a potato in the usual sense; unfortunately, however, it is the usual potato that we have to deal with from day to day. For all his loving handling of the world's objects there seems to me, in Salinger's Glass family stories as in The Catcher in the Rye, a spurning of life as it is lived in the immediate world -- this place and time is viewed as unworthy of those few precious people who have been set down in it only to be maddened and destroyed.”

Why read?

“I read fiction to be freed from my own suffocatingly boring and narrow perspective on life and to be lured into imaginative sympathy with a fully developed narrative point of view not my own. It's the same reason that I write.”

The difficulty of writing about the times

“For what is particularly tough about the times is writing about them, as a serious novelist or storyteller. Much has been made, much of it by the writers themselves, of the fact that the American writer has no status, no respect, and no audience. I am pointing here to a loss more central to the task itself, the loss of a subject; or, to put it another way, a voluntary withdrawal of interest by the fiction writer from some of the grander social and political phenomena of our times.”

Seclusion is life, writing is life

“Art is life too, you know. Solitude is life, meditation is life, pretending is life, supposition is life, contemplation is life, language is life. Is there less life in turning sentences around than in manufacturing automobiles? Is there less life in reading To the Lighthouse than in milking a cow or throwing a hand grenade? The isolation of a literary vocation -- the isolation that involves far more than sitting alone in a room for most of one's waking existence -- has as much to do with life as accumulating sensations or multinational corporations out in the great hurly-burly.”

No future for aesthetic literacy

“I doubt that aesthetic literacy -- an acute sensitivity or receptivity to the devices through which fiction imposes its unique hold on the reading mind -- has much of a future here. Two decades on, the size of a discerning audience of adroit amateur readers for the literary novel will be about the size of the group who read Latin poetry -- read Latin poetry now, that is, and not who read it during the Renaissance.”

The power to alter things is vested nowhere

“The daily newspapers fill us with wonder and awe (is it possible? is it happening?), also with sickness and despair. The fixes, the scandals, the insanity, the idiocy, the piety, the lies, the noise...Recently, in Commentary, Benjamin DeMott wrote that the ‘deeply lodged suspicion of the times [is] namely, that events and individuals are unreal, and that power to alter the course of the age, of my life and your life, is actually vested nowhere.’ There seems to be, said DeMott, a kind of ‘universal descent into unreality.’”