Philip Roth: An appreciation by Bill Flanagan

Bill Flanagan on Philip Roth

"Sunday Morning" contributor Bill Flanagan on the acclaimed novelist who died last week at age 85:

I had the same literary agent as Philip Roth - which is kind of like Woody Allen bragging that he went to the same gym as Arnold Schwarzenegger.

When our agent introduced us, I said, "Mr. Roth, it's great to meet you - I just started reading 'The Human Stain' last night – I'm only up to page 90."

Roth said, "Stop right there – it's all downhill after the first 90 pages!"

He could not have been friendlier or more open. The fury that animated much of his best writing was not apparent in the writer.

In his work, Roth was fearless as a kamikaze.  He wrote about male attitudes toward sex with a fierceness that offended conservatives, feminists, and some literary critics. He was like a mix of Chekhov, D.H. Lawrence and Lenny Bruce. 

Roth's super-ego studied his id like a scientist making notes on a rare lizard.

An editor I know suggested that Roth was so brave because he had no children. This editor said that even the boldest writers hold back a bit when they think about their kids reading what they wrote. According to this theory, Roth was childless - so Roth was fearless.

But you have to say a lot of writers are not parents - and none of them is Philip Roth.

Roth pulled off a great magic trick: He made his readers believe that his narrators were HIM - that the Roth-like characters telling the stories were the writer himself. Thus, we went deeper into the stories. We started to believe that the fictions were real. And that is quite a slight of hand.

Philip Roth was an illusionist in the service of honesty, a literary master with the timing of a standup comic. He made the hardest stuff look easy.

We will not have another writer like Philip Roth in this lifetime.

See also: