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Diana Sheets: Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe, the Passing of Two Literary Icons

Jun 12, 2018 by

An Interview with Diana Sheets: Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe, the Passing of Two Literary Icons

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)     Diana, we have just lost two of our most famous writers—Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe. Your initial reactions?

I mourn the passing of Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe because of what their deaths signify for the future of fiction.  These two writers, whatever their differences in literary style and narrative content, anchored their stories within the world.  Realism trumped interior states of consciousness divorced from reality.  This put both men at odds with today’s literary establishment, which is obsessively focused on social justice and multiculturalism drenched in interior thoughts and feelings that reveal nothing substantive about the world.  By contrast, Roth and Wolfe appeared to be “old fashioned”, almost 19th century in their approaches to fiction.  It’s important to realize there was a terrible cost associated with this turn from realism toward interiority: It drove readers to nonfiction, TV, and the Internet, anything that could provide substantive information about the world.  Fiction became domesticated; it became feminized and increasingly irrelevant.

So, we’re witnessing not only the deaths of the last two “Great White Males”—who over their lives, sought repeatedly to write the “Great American Novel”—but also the death of fiction that places demands upon us and enlarges our understanding of the world.  Serious readers are or should be inconsolable.  Great fiction had us retreating to our rooms for hours and days at a time while revealing to us all that was important about life.  Now, what we’re left with are empty words, empty emotions, and empty thoughts.  We’re painfully forced to acknowledge FICTION IS DEAD, AND IT ISN’T COMING BACK.

2)     Why do you think this happened?

Throughout the 20th century, books—both fiction and nonfiction—were primarily disseminated by publishers.  However, the print medium was increasingly challenged by movies, television, and, ultimately, the Internet, all of which emphasized visual and oral content at the expense of the written word.  Of these, the Internet was the most destructive of all since it distilled and trivialized textual content in an effort to attract viewers into an increasingly oral-visual platform in which words were becoming ancillary, rather than central to the medium.

Philip Roth acknowledged this trend in a 2009 video interview with Tina Brown, former editor for “Vanity Fair” and “The New Yorker”.  Reading a novel, he suggested, is difficult, requiring “a certain kind of concentration, focus, devotion” that, he suggested, “is hard to come by”.  The result, Roth noted, is that reading in 25 years would be tantamount to a “cultic” activity engaged in by “a small group of people—maybe more people that now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range”.

“The book can’t compete with the screen”, he emphasized in that interview with Brown.  Adding, “It couldn’t compete . . . with the movie screen.  It couldn’t compete with the television screen and it can’t compete with the computer screen. . . . And now we have all those screens so against all those screens . . . the book couldn’t measure up”.

Roth realized that understanding written literature is challenging.  It requires readers to decipher symbolic letters in order to recreate the author’s narrative in their own imagination.  However, given that information we “read” today, which is mostly on the Internet and read through our “screens”, is generally reduced to just bits of text that scrolls beneath, alongside, or above sound-embedded images, naturally, we become less and less literate.  Challenging narratives, as a result, because increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for all but the most sophisticated reader to understand.

What can we deduce from this?  We’re now essentially an oral-visual society.  This means most of us can’t comprehend abstract and analytic ideas.  Events unfold and impact our lives and increasingly we have no framework to understand or interpret them, let alone react intelligently to what is happening to us in order to solve our problems.

Naturally, we get angry and scared.  However, as a society we are losing the knowledge necessary to respond to our distress, let alone alleviate our problems.  This makes the world terrifying.  And this loss of knowledge can ultimately be traced back to a loss of reading comprehension.

3)     How does this relate to Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe?

They were amongst the last two great writers who embraced realism and made it comprehensible to the general reader.  That is, their fiction and, in the case of Tom Wolfe his nonfiction as well, were predominantly engaged in understanding the world.  To that end, they were knowledge seekers.  Yes, Philip Roth often inserted his own neurosis and obsession with Jewish identity into that process of information gathering and assessment, nevertheless, he insisted on placing the self or individual within the content of a larger world.

Tom Wolfe, by contrast, never faltered in his pursuit of explaining society by means of fiction and nonfiction.  As a Ph.D. graduate of American Studies at Yale University—back when American Studies meant understanding the world, rather than exploring the bottomless pit of identity politics—and a man who perused a career as an investigative reporter, Wolfe’s hunger to comprehend society shaped his endeavors as a writer.

Today, literary writers are celebrated for writing about identity and consciousness divorced from the world.  Tom Wolfe referred to these literary writers as “Neo-Fabulists”, men and women who turned their backs on realism in favor of a fictive universe.  For Wolfe, as I noted in my book “The Doubling”, “the Neo-Fabulists employed extended monologues that were immersed in the murky realm of consciousness; they engaged in flashy pyro-techniques, and they flirted with metaphysics and magical realism”.  Amongst those writers Wolfe included some of the most celebrated literary writers of the 20th century: Kafka, Borges, and Márquez, as well as Kundera and their American counterparts Barth and Coover.

Why is the triumph of the “Neo-Fabulists so tragic?  Wolfe explained this in his 1989 essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel” published in “Harper’s Magazine”.  For Wolfe, as I noted in my book “The Doubling”, these writers “could do things within the narrow limits they had set for themselves that were more clever and amusing than anyone could have ever imagined”.  However, as Wolfe noted, “What was this lonely island they had moved to?”  These writers had, he suggested, become disengaged from the “American century, the century in which we had become the mightiest military power in all history, capable of blowing up the world by turning two cylindrical keys in a missile silo but also capable, once it blew, of escaping to stars in spaceships”.  Wolfe concluded, “We were alive in the first moment since the dawn of time in which man was able at last to break the bonds of Earth’s gravity and explore the rest of the universe”.  Why, wondered Wolfe, weren’t literary writers interested in this?

Wolfe’s response to his own rhetorical question appeared in his essay collection “Hooking Up” (2000).  He acknowledged the declining stature of the novel while, nevertheless, emphasizing the causes that might remedy that circumstance.

The American novel is  dying,  not  of  obsolescence, but of  anorexia.   It  needs . . . food.  It needs novelists with huge appetites and mighty, unslacked thirsts for . . . America . . .  as she is right now.  It needs novelists with the energy and the verve to approach America the way her moviemakers do, which is to say, with a ravenous curiosity and an urge to go out among her 270 million souls and talk to them and look them in the eye. . . . The revolution of the twenty-first century, if the arts are to survive, will have a name to which no ism can be easily attached.  It will be called “content”.  It will be called life, reality, the pulse of the human beast.

This lack of interest in realism, by some of our most celebrated literary writers, when combined with the “dumbed-down” focus of the new medium, the Internet, which has dulled our ability to read, let alone understand meaningful literature engaged with the world, has ensured the irrelevance of fiction in the 21st century.

4)     Let’s look at these two writers one at a time: What do you see as Philip Roth’s principal contributions to literature?

Before Philip Roth’s death, he was the most decorated American writer alive.  Over the course of his life he wrote 27 novels.  He won the National Book Award twice, initially for his collection that included his celebrated novella “Goodbye, Columbus” along with five short stories and, subsequently, for his novel “Sabbath’s Theater” (1995).  Roth also received the National Book Critics Circle twice, first, for his novel “The Counterlife” (1986) and, later, for his story about his father entitled “Patrimony” (1991).

His greatest literary honor was the Pulitzer Prize, which was awarded in 1998 for “American Pastoral”, a panoramic novel about a Jewish-American family and the tragedy that befell them.  Their plight is set against the national calamities associated with the Vietnam War and the social conflicts and racial riots of the 1960s that laid waste to established mores in the United States and to which, even today, we have never recovered.

However, Roth’s most notorious novel about sex, Jews, and America in the late 1960s was “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1969).  He opened the narrative with a diagnostic entry in a learned psychoanalytic journal written by Portnoy’s psychologist, Spielvogel.  This “complaint” or disorder manifested in Portnoy appears because it is perceived to have relevance for other patients.  What is his condition?: “A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature”.  These “extreme sexual longings” include, according to Spielvogel, “acts of exhibitionism, voyeurism, fetishism, auto-eroticism and oral coitus”.  However, because of the patient’s “morality”, these desires and actions don’t provide “sexual gratification”.  Instead, they  produce “overriding feelings of shame and the dread of retribution, particularly in the form of castration”.  An editorial comment in the journal notes, “It is believed by Spielvogel that many of the symptoms can be traced to the bonds obtaining in the mother-child relationship”.

There you have it.  This scabrous, taboo-smashing novel—the best-selling work of fiction in America published in 1969—catapulted Roth to fame and fortune for its salacious sexuality and its biting humor rendered by means of a monologue narrated by neurotic 33-year-old Alexander Portnoy.  This protagonist sought relief from his domineering Jewish mother, his long-suffering father, and his miserable childhood in New Jersey in which family circumstances resembled a one-house Jewish shtetel.

The novel, according to Nathaniel Rich writing for “The New York Review of Books” in 2018, was received “like a firebomb thrown into a Hillel House”.  Many in the Jewish community worried, as did Gershom Scholem, an Israeli philosopher, that “Portnoy’s Complaint” was “the book for which all anti-Semites have been praying”.

Roth’s life-long challenge, never fully realized, was to write  the Great American Novel.  This would demonstrate that his literary talents were more versatile than just writing “Portnoy’s Complaint”, fairly or unfairly perceived by many to reflect the neurotic and narcissistic inclinations of its author. But to succeed, Roth had to demonstrate conclusively that he could write fiction that exhibited the gravitas, splendor, and pathos associated a panoramic story that illuminated our national psyche.

This he attempted to realize with his American Trilogy: “American Pastoral” (1997), “I Married a Communist” (1998), and “The Human Stain” (2000).  “American Pastoral” came close.  One indicator was it won the Pulitzer Prize.  Another was that “Time Magazine” ranked it in 2010 in the top 100 novels published throughout the world since 1923.  Finally, it made the shortlist of novels considered in 2006 by “The New York Times” as “The Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years”.

What made “American Pastoral” so critically successful?  Roth wrestled with the idea of writing a Great American Novel for years.  In 1960 he resisted writing a novel that encapsulated the American story, suggesting that newspaper stories were outstripping the narratives of novelists who retreated “to the construction of wholly imaginary worlds, and to a celebration of the self”.  Nevertheless, by the latter 1990s, as Michiko Kakutani, literary reviewer for “The New York Times” pointed out, Roth tackled the American story.  This meant dispensing with satire and hyperbole, obscenities and characters that narcissistically resembled the author.  Instead, he created a family tragedy that served as a parable for the panoramic story unfolding in America in the 1960s when traditional mores were breaking down, all the while young people resisted their elders and took to the streets to protest the Vietnam War, thereby rejecting their parents and societal conventions.

Roth presents the story of Seymour (“Swede”) Levov, a handsome Jewish man, who with his blond hair, his blue eyes, his strikingly Viking countenance, and his extraordinary athletic prowess at Weequahic High suggested to his classmates that he was “as close to a goy as we were going to get”.

Swede marries outside the faith, an attractive Catholic girl, Mary Dawn Dwyer, who had been crowned “Miss New Jersey” in 1949.  He runs the family business, a glove factory in Newark.  They have a daughter, Merry.  The family lives miles away in a rural community west of the city.  Life appears good, seemingly the perfect couple with a child.  Then, in the late 1960s, their lives unravel.  Newark during of the summer of 1967 explodes in rioting.  Many buildings are burned to the ground. Because most of the Swede’s employees are blacks in the community, local residents spare the factory from destruction.  Nevertheless, Newark resembles a war zone.  The Swede decides to keep his factory in the city, but without the infrastructure most of the remaining businesses there struggle to succeed.

The following year the Swede’s daughter, Merry, at age sixteen, sets a bomb in a small post office in their rural community.  It’s an action symbolizing her hatred not only of America but also of her parents and their values.  The bomb kills a local doctor posting a letter early one morning.  Merry flees.  Time passes.  The Swede struggles to find his daughter.  Ultimately he locates her hiding in Newark.  She’s dirty, smelly, malnourished, and disconnected from reality.  Merry confesses to him that she‘s killed three more people in Oregon.  He learns that she’s also been raped.  Twice.   Merry tells him she’s embraced the Jainian faith.

However, that religion, with its emphasis that all creatures, large and small, possess a soul, bears no relation to her social and political convictions.  Over the years, the Swede maintains contact with his daughter who remains in hiding.  The Swede’s brother, Jerry, blames Merry’s violent, radical beliefs on her father’s liberal, assimilationist values that created “the angriest kid in America” and led to the troubles that befall the family.

In the aftermath of Newark’s rioting and Merry’s bombing of a New Jersey post office, the Swede and Mary unsuccessfully attempt to rebuild their shattered lives.  The Swede has a brief affair.  Mary, immersed in grief, seeks refuge by falling in love and subsequently marrying the architect who was designing the Levov’s new home.  The Swede ultimately remarries and has three sons.

Nevertheless, he can’t shake the feeling that he has failed.  He couldn’t save his daughter, couldn’t prevent her from killing four people, couldn’t protect her from rape, and couldn’t salvage his marriage to Mary.

The Swede never comprehends how his life and his family came to ruin or how it might have been prevented.  He never understands how his actions intersect with the larger societal trauma in America during the late 1960s.  His world and that of the society around him have come undone.  He’s a shell of a man trying to maintain appearances as he somnambulates through the remainder of his life. The reader experiences his pain, his loss, his sense of utter futility.  The Swede is powerless to change anything.  It’s all collapsed: his life, his family’s life, the city of Newark, and, by extrapolation, all of America, which appears to have come undone.

The novel is narrated by Roth’s fictive alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who, although six years behind the Swede at Weequahic High, nevertheless, idealized him.  Zuckerman, recovering from prostate cancer, is not only sexually impotent but also incontinent.  A fitting character to relay this tragic American story of our national paralysis.

To parents who have gone through challenging circumstances in their marriages, their lives, their jobs, and raising their children, “American Pastoral” painfully resonates.  Conservative critics and particularly conservative Jews, traumatized by the new social norms and the toll assimilation was taking upon the Jewish community, were apt to imbue Roth with a new-found conservatism.  Thus, Norman Podhoretz, writing for “Commentary Magazine”, suggested that “American Pastoral” was the imagination of “a born-again Philip Roth”, someone who had “changed sides” and, possibly, “turned into a neoconservative?”

Unfortunately, the power of “American Pastoral” was never matched by the other two books in his American Trilogy.  “I Married a Communist” (1998), rather than presenting a larger story of America, seemed more focused on settling personal scores with his ex-wife, British actress Claire Bloom, in response to her memoir chronicling the cruelty he inflicted upon her.

The third novel in the series, “The Human Stain” (2000), also struggled to present our national story in a manner that demonstrated Roth’s  mastery of the Great American Novel.  It was about a black academic passing as a white Jew and the events that ensue when he is charged unfairly with racism, but won’t reveal who he is and why the charge isn’t true.

The book is a critical examination of the troubling trends in academe where political correctness have replaced scholarly excellence.  However, Roth has trouble inhabiting the consciousness of the character Coleman Silk.

By 2000, when “The Human Stain” is published, having a Jewish author write a story about a black man masquerading as a white Jew who is unfairly charged with racism becomes problematic.  Roth can’t shake the taint of “white privilege” and many critics and readers could challenge—fairly or not—the appropriateness of a Jewish author writing about a black man masquerading as a Jew.  So while the book garnered some awards, it never achieves literary authenticity.  Because of this, Roth is less successful than he might have liked in touching poignantly upon the larger theme of political correctness and the toil it has taken upon the academy.

All told, Roth’s fiction never quite surpasses “Portnoy’s Complaint”, the success of which overwhelms his other literary endeavors.  Just go to your library and see which of Roth’s books are checked out.  Chances are it will be “Portnoy’s Complaint”, rather than “American Pastoral”.

5)     Now, Tom Wolfe: What were his most famous books and your perspective on his literary contribution?

How we assess Tom Wolfe’s contributions depends on our definition of “literary”.  He was one of the leading proponents of “New Journalism”, what some may now group under the general heading of creative nonfiction.  The goal of New Journalists in the 1960s and 1970s was to make journalism come alive by embedding fictional techniques in journalistic stories with several fictional methods.

First, scene-by-scene reporting, which gives readers the sense of experiencing the story “live” before their very eyes.

Second, dialogue, which brings the story to life, giving it a cinematic quality.

Third, presenting multiple points of view so the reader dwells within the minds of the individuals under investigation.

Fourth, these stories provide a panoramic perspective of society, including its manners and its mores.  This enables the reader to associate the narrative with the larger American story.

Some of the greatest writers in the second half of the Twentieth century in America embraced its tenets of New Journalism.  We have only to think of Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, and, of course, Tom Wolfe, to name just a few.  These writers reinvented journalism, borrowing techniques from fiction and frequently outselling their literary competitors.

From my perspective, I make no distinction between literature and nonfiction.  What I’m interested in is what these authors demonstrate in terms of narrative.  I concur with William F. Buckley Jr., who in writing about Tom Wolfe in the “National Review” characterized him as “probably the most skillful writer in America—I mean by that he can do more things with words than anyone else”.

Wow, could Tom Wolfe write!  Think of his wonderful descriptions of the California custom car culture in the early 1960s displayed in his spell-binding essay “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby”.  It was published initially under a different title in “Esquire” magazine in 1963 before appearing in Wolfe’s first nonfiction essay collection in 1965.  What about his hilarious, if damning, portrait of Ken Kesley and his drug-infused “Merry Pranksters” in California that came spell-bindingly alive in his book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” (1968).

In terms of satire skewering political correctness, nothing quite matched Wolfe’s hilarious sendup of Leonard Bernstein’s benefit for the Black Panthers that was held in the Maestro’s duplex penthouse on Park Avenue.  The story was initially published in “New York Magazine” in 1970 as “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s” before reappearing in an essay collection published later that year entitled “Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers”,  http://nymag.com/news/features/46170/index1.html.  Wolfe’s edited collection, “The New Journalism” (1973), explained what its methods were, who wrote New Journalism, and why this approach transformed American nonfictional storytelling.  “The Right Stuff” (1979), about the test pilots—particularly Chuck Yeager—and the Mercury Seven astronauts was, hands down, the most mesmerizing nonfictional depiction of America’s heroic age of space exploration.  Let’s not overlook his brilliant literary manifesto, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast”, published in “Harper’s Magazine” (1989) that challenged the literary establishment to re-think what a Great American Novel could be and should do.  These represent just some of Wolf’s important journalistic contributions.

Then, there’s his fiction.  The reader would be hard pressed to find a novel that surpasses “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1987) in its portrait of New York City and what this reveals about America during the late 1980s.  Those bond traders, those lawyers, those judges, those cops, and those junkies are all part of a mélange of storytelling that showcases the explosive tenor of race relations and class divisions in the city during that period.  It’s a side-splitting tragicomedy of New York during an era when the city struggles to survive.  The novel poignantly describes Manhattan and how it embodies America’s fall from grace.  No one has written a better 20th century narrative about our most dynamic city and its implosion during “go-go ‘80s”.

The Literary Establishment never warmed to Tom Wolfe.  When he started writing bestselling novels, especially “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “A Man in Full” (1998), the spite and jealousy emanating from Norman Mailer, John Updike, and John Irving was palpable.  These skirmishes were subsequently recounted by Wolfe in “My Three Stooges” published in  Wolfe’s essay collection “Hooking Up” (2000).

Wolfe’s greatest novel was unquestionably “Bonfire”.  New York City was his journalistic “beat”. Wolfe lived and breathed the politics, the characters, and the psychological tumult destabilizing Manhattan during the 1980s.  His immense knowledge brings the city alive, highlighting by means of tabloid scandal its sins and excesses.

Although Wolfe was a Southerner by birth and upbringing, he never lived and worked a journalistic beat in Atlanta, so his second novel, “A Man in Full”, never resonates the way “Bonfire” does. At times it feels as if Wolfe has recreated “Bonfire” in a new setting, something that diminishes “A Man in Full”.  It doesn’t mean that there aren’t moments when the novel captivates, but it never reveals the pulsing underbelly of Atlanta in a manner that avoids clichés to describe the complex motivations and intricate intersection of history and culture that distinguishes Atlanta from other Southern cities or some of America’s most significant urban metropolises.  These limitations are even more manifest in “I Am Charlotte Simmons” (2004) and “Back to Blood” (2012).  Simply put, Wolfe at age 73 has trouble imagining the circumstances of a young, female undergraduate at a prestigious college circa the beginning of our new millennium or, for that matter, some eight years later realistically portraying Miami’s Cuban-American milieu.  So let’s acknowledge that Wolfe’s fiction after “A Man in Full” doesn’t compare with his earlier efforts.  Nevertheless, no one could match Wolfe’s wit and authority about the spectrum of subjects he covered over the course of his lifetime.  We’re reminded again of what William F. Buckley Jr. said, “Wolfe “can do more things with words than anyone else”.

Wolfe received the National Book Award for Nonfiction for “The Right Stuff” (1980).  “The Bonfire of the Vanities” was a blockbuster bestseller, but was only a fiction finalist for the National Book Critics Circle (1987) just as “A Man in Full”, another blockbuster bestseller, was a fiction finalist for the National Book Award (1998).

Wolfe’s work has received other honors, but the establishment penalized him throughout his lifetime for focusing on the external actions, speech, demeanor, and dress of his characters, rather than the interior thoughts and feelings underlying their actions.  In short, literary critics felt that Wolfe’s failure to delve deeply into emotion-driven consciousness consigned his fiction to literary purgatory.

Here’s a quote from “The Right Stuff”, nicely condensed below by C. D. Bryan in his 1979  review of the book in “The New York Times” that I hope demonstrates the essence of Woof’s style, as well as conveying the precise meaning of the phrase, “The Right Stuff”.

Well, it obviously involved bravery.  But it was not bravery in the simple sense of being willing to risk your life . . . any fool could do that . . . . No, the idea . . . seemed to be that a man should have the ability to go up in a hurling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment—and then to go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day. . . . There was a seemingly infinite series of tests . . . a dizzying progression of steps and ledges . . . a pyramid extraordinarily high and steep; and the idea was to prove at every foot of the way up that pyramid that you were one of the elected and anointed ones who had the right stuff and could move higher and higher and even—ultimately, God willing one day—that you might be able to join that special few at the very top, that elite who had the capacity to bring tears to men’s eyes, the very Brotherhood of the Right Stuff itself.

6)     How were Roth and Wolfe the same, and how were they different?

Roth’s fiction was anchored in Jewish identity.  His male protagonists were almost universally neurotic Jews, attempting to navigate what is perceived as a threatening or hostile WASP landscape.  “American Pastoral” succeeds because it accomplishes what none of his other novels were able to do, namely, linking the circumstances of a Jewish man and his family’s tragic misfortune within the larger societal trauma associated with the Vietnam War and countercultural influences that laid waste to traditional American values in the late 1960s.

Wolf, by contrast, was Southern, conservative, and a WASP.  He was interested in writing about the intersection between institutional heroes and the decadence or decay that threatened to lay waste to American greatness.  If Roth always seemed to be writing a novel that had some version of himself as the protagonist, Wolfe masked his identity and wrote about subjects that explained America, not Tom Wolfe.  His signature white suit that came to define his literary persona represented a southern uniform that defied the Northeastern literary establishment.

Certainly, it also served to showcase the “writer Tom Wolfe”.  Nevertheless, he deftly used this sartorial shield to keep the public at bay and to prevent them from peering into his private life and personal thoughts.  Roth, of course, was also very private.  Nevertheless, his fiction and its characters were very revealing of his outlook and life and that, necessarily, prevented the construction of a firewall from separating the author Philip Roth from the private man living his life.

The reason I celebrate Wolfe is that he wrote about society, not himself.  He researched extensively the story he was writing to illuminate America.  Personally, I’m repelled by identity politics and the obsessive focus on self.  I’m sick of love stories.  What do I long to read?  Books that illuminate man’s fall from grace and what this means for civilization.  That’s why I’m drawn to Wolfe’s nonfiction and fiction.

7)     How has fiction changed since the literary era of Roth and Wolfe?

Both writers matured in an era when women, if they could afford to do so, mostly stayed home raising children, supporting their husbands, and escaped by means of the diverting pleasure of reading fiction that illuminated the ostensibly male domain that depicted the world outside the home focused, not so much on children but rather on business and power and the sizzling attraction between men and women.  By the late 1980s fiction increasingly shifted its focus from “manly” topics to reflect feminized perspectives and multicultural milieux with the spotlight on social justice.

The new literary outlook was becoming evident when Toni Morrison received the Nobel Prize in 1993.  Not surprisingly in 2006 when Sam  Tannenhaus, then “The New York Times Book Review” editor, queried influential writers, literary experts, critics, and editors to select “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years”, Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” won.  It was followed by several books written by male literary writers including, in descending order, Don DeLillo’s “Underworld”, Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”, John Updike’s four novels that comprise his “Rabbit” series, and Philip Roth’s, “American Pastoral”.  Six of Roth’s novels were mentioned including “The Counterlife”, “Operation Skylock”, “Sabbath’s Theater”, “The Human Stain”, and “The Plot Against America”, in addition to “American Pastoral”.

Nevertheless, individually none of these other books bested Morrison’s “Beloved” and her triumph symbolically marked the passing of the literary baton from Great White Males to women generally, blacks particularly, and writers focused on multiculturalism, identity politics, race, gender, and class, particularly as these topics pertained to the burning issue of social justice.

Certainly, one might make the case that Roth and other Jewish writers—including Bellow and Mailer—were  the first to celebrate (Jewish) identity politics.  But these writers refused to see their fiction as inhabiting a ghettoized world of “Jewish fiction”. They were writing about their perception of Jewish experience within the context of a larger world.  Their readers were interested in these writers for their ability to illuminate the universal domain of American experience that, coincidentally, included Jews.

The larger problem of feminized fiction has become evident in the kinds of stories that win literary awards and are celebrated by the literary establishment.  Consider, for instance, Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel “Middlesex”, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2003.  That story is about a hermaphrodite, Callie, who transitions at age fourteen to Cal.  It’s not that there aren’t individuals longing to transition from one sex to another or that we can’t sympathize with them and their plight.

But when we’re asked to celebrate these narratives as great literature just because they touch upon these topical issues, that, I would argue, bodes trouble for the future of fiction.

Neither Wolfe nor Roth would have celebrated this transition of literature away from the “manly” world toward the interiorized domain of politically correct and feminized fiction.  Whatever their differences, their stories were about the world and the men and women who inhabited it.  Furthermore, gender for them was not perceived as “socially constructed”.  No wonder in today’s political climate their work necessarily consigns them to the burial ground of dead white males writing about Western civilization.  But in riding our literary narratives of realism, of masculinity, of violence, and the less-than-virtuous world we inhabit, we render fiction irrelevant.

So, I hope our readers will join me in mourning the passing of these two “literary lions” and lament what may rightfully be viewed as the end of a literary era that strove to recognize great literature as part of the Western canon.

8)     Of the two writers, who will have a greater literary legacy?

That’s difficult to answer.  Readers, naturally, have their own favorites and not enough time has passed to make that objective assessment.

There’s no question, however, that men—Jewish or not—often identified with Roth’s characters and the struggles of his male protagonists.  For many Jewish men of his generation and slightly younger, Roth described their challenges of navigating from the cloistered, Jewish community into the larger WASP world.  In short, Roth, while he magnified and exaggerated the experience of Jewish men, understood not only Jewish men but also men as a whole.  I, on the other hand, as with many women, found his fiction narcissistic and disliked how he characterized most women.  But “American Pastoral” excised his demons to explore magnificently the plight of America of the 1960s and—arguably—it’s long, painful decline.

Perhaps, “Portnoy’s Complaint” will retain its tantalizing allure for its wicked humor and taboo subject matter.

Conversely, what I appreciated about Tom Wolfe’s writing was his ability to transport me to other worlds, nonfiction and fiction, that enlarged my understanding of life.  And, of course, I loved his wit and humor.  I believe Wolfe remains—unfairly—as one of the most underrated of the literary writers, both because of his politics and because of his literary style that refused to replace a burning curiosity about the world for the murky, subjective, and feminized domain of consciousness.

Let’s not forget the contemporary relevance of “Bonfire”, a novel that even today is deeply revealing of our American story and our national character.  Think about it.  There’s Sherman McCoy, the 36-year-old bond salesman, “Master of the Universe”, who has it all, the perfect wife, the gorgeous mistress, the lovely daughter, and the fabulous Park Avenue co-op in Manhattan.  Then, his life unravels when he takes a wrong turn that causes him to end up in a rough neighborhood in the Bronx.  McCoy is accused of a murder he never committed.  His wife leaves him, his mistress betrays him, his daughter rejects him.  He loses his co-op and he appears consigned to spend the rest of his life in legal court proceedings fighting to redeem himself.

Only by the conclusion of the novel, we believe “that ain’t gonna happen”.  It’s a tabloid story for our tabloid age and it delivers perfect poetic justice.  Distressed that the story has no sympathetic characters? We’ll, that’s life!

9)     Your most recent book “The Doubling: Those Influential Writers That Shape Our Contemporary Perceptions of Identity and Consciousness in the New Millennium” compares and contrasts pairs of writers, many of whom are considered to be the literary giants of modern Western civilization.  Give us examples.  Why are these writers important, i.e. Why should we care?

Years ago, prior to e-books and Kindles, prominent writers and readers might be asked to speculate about what literature they might bring to a desert island knowing they might be stranded there forever.   “The Doubling”, in essence, discusses those books and those writers that best represent my selections of the Western canon that I would want to take with me.  The authors are paired off, so the reader gets interesting insights into the men and women, their books, and the eras in which they lived.

Who are they?  The book begins with Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, the foundational fathers of American fiction. It follows with Miguel de Cervantes and Franz Kafka, arguably the most important first and last great writers that transformed the modern literary landscape.  “The Doubling” then introduces the reader to many of the greatest Latin American writers and how Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez fundamentally transformed the modern literary landscape.

My book pairs two of America’s greatest fiction writers William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway and their competitive efforts to create memorable literature.  It examines how F. Scott Fitzgerald with Saul Bellow endeavored to create the Great American Novel, a topic I discuss again with a pair of writers who pioneered American Naturalism, Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser.  There’s a chapter of African-American literature as seen through the lens of Ralph Ellison and Colson Whitehead.  “The Doubling” examines two of the greatest contributors to New Journalism, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe.  It examines the literary and spiritual influences shaping the fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Cynthia Ozick.  Contemporary Latino voices are represented by Junot Díaz (Dominican-American) and Roberto Bolaño (Chilean-Mexican).  “The Doubling” examines Mikhail Bulgakov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who were some of the most important literary talents to resist Soviet tyranny. It looks at British writers Evelyn Waugh, Edward St Aubyn, and Will Self, as well as the British post-colonial writer J. M. Coetzee.  French naturalism and its presentation of shocking truths about society are examined with respect to Émile Zola and contemporary provocateur Michel Houellebecq.

The book is presented in the form of a Q & A—brilliantly executed by you, Michael Shaughnessy!  Your method in posing questions not only brings the writers and their works alive but also approaches the subject in an exciting and unintimidating manner, which is not typical of literary or academic studies.  It’s a wonderful introduction to several of the greatest books written by some of our best writers that shaped our literary canon.

10)  Where can readers obtain copies of “The Doubling”? Is it available yet in e-book form?

The essays in “The Doubling”  are available on a “read-only” basis on my website, Literary Gulag.  You can examine these essays either on the University of Illinois open-access website, IDEALS, https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/handle/2142/99008 or go directly to my Literary Gulag website, http://www.literarygulag.com/blog/show/92.

What makes this collection enjoyable is its ability to encapsulate some of the most important Western writers in an easy-to-read volume.  Libraries and schools can purchase copies of the book directly from Nova Science Publishers, https://www.novapublishers.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=59974.

I don’t believe it’s available in an e-book form yet, but I hope that’s coming soon.

   11)  Tell us about your website, Literary Gulag.  What can readers expect to find there?

I created Literary Gulag, in 2007 as a platform to present my fiction, literary criticism, and political commentary.  I felt that the political correctness of the literary establishment was destroying fiction and making it nearly impossible to publish anything meaningful about the world.  The premise driving the creation of my website is that while I may be confined to the literary gulag—a literary analogy to the writers and political prisoners in Stalin’s Soviet Gulag—I, nevertheless, have the freedom to tell the truth.

Readers can download my first novel, “The Cusp of Dreams”, from my website.  My second novel, “American Suite” is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple’s iBookstore.

My personal essays on literature, literary criticism, and politics are retrievable from my website and most are also found on my site hosted on the IDEALS website.  Those published through Nova Science Publishers are available as “read-only essays” from my site and my IDEALS site.  The Nova Science essays on my website include all 15 chapters I’ve included in “The Doubling”, as well as three additional essays: “The Humanities in Crisis: What Went Wrong and How to Restore their Centrality in our Daily Lives”, “Reading and Thinking Critically in the Age of Disputation”, and “The Great Books and Cultural Identity: The Rise and Fall of Western Memory and Its Implication for Our Time”.

You’ll also find on both sites my analysis of the innovative iFoundry engineering initiative at the University of Illinois.  The essay about iFoundry, “Transformative Initiatives: How iFoundry Reimages STEM Education for the 21st Century” was published in a collection about STEM education by Purdue University Press (2015).  It’s now available through open-access either from Literary Gulag or my website on IDEALS.

I hope readers will take a look.

12)  What are you working on now?

I’m revising my third novel for publication, a post-apocalyptic science fiction story that examines the loss of cultural memory and the social consequences of societal decline and the collective loss of consciousness.

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