How Philip Roth Changed My Life

My first Roth book was Portnoy’s Complaint, which I read as a teenager.  It blew my mind because I’d never read a first person narrative that was so anarchic. As Roth has written: “Nobody expects a Jew to go crazy in public.” It was also wickedly funny, and broke many other taboos. Nothing I read for school came even close to being so alive–and so entertaining.  The book changed American literature forever, as the Washington Post reported today.

It hit home for me. The over-protectiveness as well as the carping of Alexander Portnoy’s parents reminded me of my own mother and father who sometimes said things just as diminishing and weird. And his rage against anti-Semitism was revelatory.  But it would be awhile before I found the courage to write freely about being Jewish, the son of Holocaust survivors, and gay.

Soon after college, I read The Ghost Writer. I was in love with Henry James at the time and it seemed very Jamesian, like one of the Master’s tales about the “madness of art”–with a Holocaust twist. I read it over and over. The prose struck me as perfect, the story profound, and I thought that if I could someday write a book even half that beautiful, I would have really accomplished something fine.

I did a report on Portnoy’s Complaint in graduate school which had the seminar in hysterics because I read sections of the book aloud. It taught me something about writing as performance which I would utilize years later on my many book tours. I followed his work almost religiously, reading his criticism as well as his fiction, and the anger of his critics in the Jewish community sobered me. My first book, which combined Jewish and gay themes, got some savage reviews in the Jewish press, though nothing as bad or as widespread as Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus.

Years later, my memoir about coming terms with Germany as a son of Holocaust survivors was basically ignored by the Jewish press, including publications that had published my short stories and essays. I was relieved in a way. I didn’t have the skill to skewer critics the way Roth did, and I would not have relished a firestorm.  It was bad enough that when I spoke about that memoir at a famous Jewish venue, I was attacked by members of the audience for saying anything remotely positive about my experiences in Germany.  My favorite angry comment, which seems right out of a Zuckerman novel: “Okay, so you’ve been to Germany, why go back?  There aren’t other countries in the world?”

Before I became a regular reviewer for the Detroit Free Press, I was asked to review his memoir Patrimony and I declined.  I felt too humbled by the power and precision of his work.  Now I’m sorry that I didn’t at least try.

I met Roth when he spoke at Michigan State University.  He seemed bored by the questions from the audience, including mine, and when I had him sign one of his books afterwards, he was as aloof as if the experience pained him.  I’d given him one of my own books with a Roth quote written above my signature and he seemed startled, “Did I really write that?”

It was a chilly interaction, but that didn’t stop me from reading and enjoying later novels, and assigning his work in a Jewish-American literature class whose students loved The Plot against America.  And I’m proud to say that an essay of mine appeared in a collection where he was one of the star contributors. Better still, a reviewer in the Washington Post compared my novel The German Money to Roth (and Kafka!).

I haven’t uniformly admired all his books, but he’s still a model for me of dedication, insight, and perseverance–and his dialogue is some of the best any contemporary American author has written.  Along with James, D.H. Lawrence, Anita Brookner, Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, he’s been an abiding, inspiring presence in my life as a writer.

As Dwight Garner puts it so well in the New York Times, “His work had more rage, more wit, more lust, more talk, more crosscurrents of thought and emotion, more turning over of the universals of existence….than any writer of his time.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the historical novel Rosedale in Love (The House of Mirth Revisited).  He’s been  teaching creative writing at Michigan State University and you can study with him online at writewithoutborders.com

What Should Writers Do With Bad Reviews?

A friend publishing her first book just got a negative review on Amazon, but it’s the only really bad one among about two dozen positive reviews.  And lots of those were raves.

I told her it was a mistake to read bad reviews.  Ever.

sad woman with laptopYears ago, way before Amazon, when I heard Philip Roth give a talk, he was asked about his reviews during Q&A.  If you don’t know know his work and his history, he’s been attacked for all sorts of things–including anti-Semitism!–as far back as his short story collection Goodbye Columbus.

I remember being struck by his response.  He said that he had never really learned anything about his work from a reviewer.  I’m sure some people in the audience thought he was arrogant to say that, and Roth had the air of a dyspeptic hawk, so that might have added to the impression.

philip_rothBut my friend’s distress about her negative Amazon review made me reflect about my own review history.  It includes raves from The New York Times Book Review–as well as some really nasty attacks that I wish I’d never read.

Over several decades of hundreds of reviews in print and on line, by professionals and amateurs, I don’t recall learning much, either, about my work from what they wrote.  People have liked or disliked my books for various reasons in various ways.  I’ve been thrilled by raves, enjoyed the pats on the back, and been disappointed by pans: “Don’t they get what I was trying to do?”

But have reviews made me write differently, tackle different subjects, change anything major or even minor?

Not really.  The many fine editors I’ve worked with have been the ones who’ve had a lasting impact on me; they’ve challenged me and helped me deepen my work.

As for Amazon reviews–like those on Goodreads–they can often be mindless and cruel, sometimes little more than cyber farts.

Reviews can reflect different tastes or simply contrariness, as when people feel the need to trash great authors like Jane Austen or George Eliot.  A full 10% of the 644 people reviewing Middlemarch on Amazon gave it only one or two stars.  Obviously not fans of Victorian fiction or her brand of it, anyway.  Perhaps they might have liked it better with zombies.

middlemarchOne of my favorite staycations was taking a week off from everything to re-read Middlemarch a few years ago and I was even more blown away than the first time I read it in college.  I’m in awe of that novel, the world it creates, the depth of her psychology, and the author’s all-encompassing love for every one of her characters, even the deeply flawed ones.

You can’t and won’t please everyone as an author.  But you can please yourself by avoiding the bad reviews.  They’re not likely to make a difference in your work because they seldom offer constructive criticism–but they can make you waste time.  You can obsess about them and even make the mistake of replying, something authors should avoid because it makes them look cranky and vulnerable.

To truly grow as a writer you need to find writing mentors or colleagues who can really help you, and you need to keep reading widely, deeply, passionately.  Bad reviews should never be on your list.

o-READING-BOOK-HAPPY-facebookLev Raphael is the author of The Vampyre of Gotham and 24 other books which you can find on Amazon.  You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/LevRaphael