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Would Philip Roth Have Made it in the Twenty-First Century?

by Rebecca Spence

May 27, 2013 | 11:25 am

Philip Roth

For decades, Philip Roth, who turned eighty a couple months back, has famously bristled at the term “Jewish writer.” In the early 1960s, he told an audience in Israel: “I am not a Jewish writer; I am a writer who is a Jew.”

Fine. Okay. But let’s be real: it’s a bit ridiculous.

Roth – who happens to be my literary hero – is perhaps the 20th century’s most prolific Jewish writer. In the same way that Woody Allen can’t seem to make a movie without his Jewish mother or his insatiable lust for shiksas underpinning the entire narrative, Roth can’t seem to write a sentence without his Jewishness factoring in. The Jewish-American story is as inseparable from Roth’s novels as the African-American story is from James Baldwin’s. Roth writes what he knows, and what he knows is Yiddishkeit.

But whether or not Roth – or even his predecessors Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud – were comfortable with their ethnic identities factoring into their literary identities, is not the question. The real question is: Can the Jewish writer survive in the twenty-first century?

Could another Roth, or another Bellow, or even another Nathan Englander or Nicole Krauss, come into being in a culture where the value of the written word has fallen as precipitously as the price of gold? Or could someone like my great-great grandfather, the Yiddish writer B. Kovner, whose “Yente Telebende” column in the Jewish Daily Forward spawned the term yente, still manage to support a family on his writer’s salary?

Writing in The New Yorker on the occasion of Roth’s 80th birthday, Adam Gopnik summed it up best: “Thanks to the Internet, the disproportion between writerly supply and demand, always tricky, has tipped: anyone can write, and everyone does, and beginners are expected to be the last pure philanthropists, giving it all away for the naches. It has never been easier to be a writer; and it has never been harder to be a professional writer.”

So what then happens to our beloved Jewish writers? Had Roth been starting out in 2009, rather than 1959, when he first published Goodbye, Columbus to critical acclaim – and before he’d angered the rabbis with that subsequent tale of pleasuring himself with a piece of liver known as Portnoy’s Complaint – would he have made it?

I would love to say, Yes. Yes, Roth’s talent would have risen to the fore regardless of the time period in which he was writing, and yes, while his books may not have sold the millions of copies they have to date, he would still have managed to eke out a living.

But I can’t be sure.

And here is where the role of community comes in. I’d propose that in order to keep the Jewish writerly tradition alive, in order to ensure that the next generation of Roths and Ozicks and Englanders can tell the Jewish story in all of its hysterical and heartbreaking iterations, that we, as a people – the people of the book, after all – must come together to support our prose writers.

In fact, I recently launched my own communal experiment of sorts to find out if what I propose is possible. Last month I started a crowd-sourced fundraiser through USA Projects, an LA-based arts non-profit, to see if I can’t drum up the financial backing to help me finish my Israel-themed novel, The Color of Brass.

In two weeks, I’ll know the answer. I’m hoping that what I find out is this: that there is enough philanthropic capital at the Jewish communal level to support our cultural capital at the individual level. That the future of the Jewish writer isn’t at stake; that thanks to the value our tradition places on culture, and literature in particular, Philip Roth would have made it in the twenty-first century hands down.

If you’d like to learn more about my novel-in-progress, please click here.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Rebecca Spence is an award-winning writer based on the West Coast. She has written for the Forward, Elle, ARTnews, New York Magazine, Tablet, the L.A. Jewish Journal and JTA....

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