Philip Roth - How to Deal with Postmodern Reality, or, Changes in Fiction Writing.

Term Paper 1998 30 Pages

American Studies - Literature


List of contents

1. Introduction

2. Postmodernism – a Term

3. Narrativity, Moral and a Writer’s Responsibility

4. Philip Roth - Writer and Reality

5. Changes in Fiction Writing: Identity and Priority

6. Conclusion

7. References

1. Introduction

“By now you are a walking text“ (FACTS, 162),

Zuckerman writes back to Philip Roth, having been asked whether or not Roth should publish his autobiography The Facts (1988). Zuckerman is one of the characters from Roth’s books, the hero of the trilogy Zuckerman Bound (1985) and some short stories. He is a fictional character whom Roth addresses in the prologue to The Facts, asking for advice concerning the publication of what Roth calls the result of

“...writing a book absolutely backward, taking what I have already imagined and, as it were, desiccating it, so as to restore my experience to the original, prefictionalized factuality.“ (FACTS, 3)

Reading Philip Roth in a context of postmodern literature in America I have come to wonder what it actually is he himself is trying to do with his writing. Comparing Roth’s early narratives to more recent works I am tempted to say that a development can be observed towards an incorporation of narrative features which can be described as ‘postmodern’, i.e. that there are strong influences of a ‘postmodern reality’ in the work of Philip Roth, although he himself can probably not be called a postmodern writer in the strict meaning of the term. Here, of course, already appears a major problem for my assumption: What is ‘postmodern writing’ at all? Are there common features shared by (all) the representatives of postmodernism which could justify the application of such a classification? And if so, what precisely are these features and how can they be described?

In order to clarify these issues, I shall refer both to theoretical texts on that subject as well as to works of art, in this case fiction writing. In my analysis I want to focus on the relation between writer and reality, which will lead me to a discussion of the distinction between reality and fiction. I have chosen these aspects for obvious reasons: Because at the very heart of fiction writing we find that the relation of a writer, or narrator, towards his[1] reality is what constitutes ‘fiction’ as such. This problem is especially relevant for an analysis of contemporary literature since the difference between fiction and reality has been explored, questioned and blurred at least since a modernist movement has come into existence. The literary achievements of the 20th century express themselves largely through an experimentation with the distinction between fiction and reality, a playing with narrative forms, trying to meet rapidly changing social experiences. One of the most dominant features acknowledged to postmodernism is a shift of the position of the writer towards his audience, his work and his reality – maybe even a shift in the understanding of the priority of an author over his work.

It is that shift in the perception of reality which I claim has influenced Philip Roth in his writing, both in structure as well as in contents. I will try to trace these influences in the development of Roth’s work, at the same time being aware that I cannot deliver a full-scale reading of Philip Roth in this paper. It is understood that such a development, or change, cannot be described as a linear temporal sequence throughout the years, rather always depending, as it is, on the particular subject, background and purpose a work occupies. However, I maintain that Philip Roth, this critic of postmodern writing, the “enfant terrible“ of American literature for more than thirty years now, can be shown to have adopted certain ‘postmodern’ characteristics in his writing corresponding to the literary discourse of his time.

I want to start out by trying to outline some of the more manifest features of postmodern writing, guided by Ihab Hassan’s essay Toward a Concept of Postmodernism (1987) and referring to Hayden White’s considerations of the aspect of ‘moral’ in narrative texts in the essay The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality (1989). For an outline of the history of postmodernism and its discourse I am indebted to Andreas Huyssen’s Mapping the Postmodern (1986). Another basis for my argument will be Philip Roth’s essay Writing American Fiction (1961), originally a speech delivered at Stanford University for a symposium on “Writing in America Today“ in 1960. This essay is especially interesting because it deals with the problem of fictionalizing while at the same time confronting a reality where ...

...the actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures daily that are the envy of any novelist.“ (WAF, 120)

My idea is to re-read Roth’s fiction with regard to what he proclaims for fiction writing in his essay and throughout his work. For his earlier work I will concentrate on his first novella, Goodbye Columbus (1959) and the short-story Defender of the Faith (1952), then go on to the trilogy Zuckerman Bound (1985) and his autobiographical novel The Facts (1988) from which I have quoted earlier, concluding with one of his latest novels Operation Shylock (1993) where he explores the issues of authorship, priority and a writer’s responsibility.

I do realize that what I am trying to do is a fairly complex attempt: Trying to analyze a voluminous work of an astonishing author with regard to characteristics of a literary (and not only literary) movement which has not been clearly defined so far – and may just as likely never be describable as a more or less coherent phenomenon. Therefore, my claim is merely to track down at least a few similarities in the work of Philip Roth to features associated with postmodernism. For that purpose I will first have to set out to give – if not a definition – then at least a rough outline of how postmodern writing might be characterized.

2. Postmodernism – a Term

“...we have created in our mind a model of postmodernism, a particular typology of culture and imagination, and have proceeded to ‘rediscover’ the affinities of various authors and different moments with that model.“ (HASSAN, 589)

Hassan points out here the basic approach to all literary theory: Treating it not as a category literary works are implicitely formed by but rather as a pattern we are trying to find in the various works of art. A literary movement in that sense is not a normative but merely a descriptive term, applicable only to the singular specific work of literature, not to the work of an author in general. If, despite this difficulty, I will now try to give an account of postmodernism as such, this can only be understood as an attempt to combine different approaches towards postmodernism into a selection of features relevant for my later analysis of Roth’s fiction writing.

Andreas Huyssen in his essay Mapping the Postmodern (1986) gives a survey of what he sees as the different stages of postmodernism from the late 1950s to the 1980s. His account aims at showing the critical potential that differentiates postmodernism from its predecessors modernism and avantgarde:

“As I hope this essay will show, postmodernism’s critical potential lies precisely in its radical questioning of those presuppositions which linked modernism and avantgarde to the mindset of modernization.“ (HUYSSEN, 183)

What are those presuppositions which are said to be questioned? To begin with, it was high-modernist’s notion of ‘high art’ as opposed to ‘mass culture’, the autonomy of the art work with its primary concern for form and meaning, and consequently the canonization and institutionalization of what used to be a culture of resistance against dominant power structures at the time it came into being, that was strongly criticized and opposed during the 1960s. Huyssen, however, admits that the 1960s’ pop art culture bears more the features of an (American) avantgarde than of a genuinely postmodern conception, though these two have seemed to intermingle at times in their opposition to modernist traditions. As a more general feature of postmodern representation, Huyssen observes a shift away from what he calls modernist’s „myth of modernization“ (HUYSSEN, 186) to a set of

“...questions of ornament and metaphor in architecture, of figuration and realism in painting, of story and representation in literature, of the body in music and theatre.“ (HUYSSEN, 188)

Postmodernism, Huyssen argues, has adopted a view which “...avoids the false dichotomy of choosing either continuity or discontinuity“ (HUYSSEN, 189), resulting in a specific incorporation of contradictions going hand in hand with a growing discomfort with the perception of reality in the traditional terms.

“...it may be precisely one of the characteristics of the postmodern that the relationship between progress and destruction of cultural forms, between tradition and modernity can no longer be understood today the same way Marx understood it at the dawn of modernist culture“ (HUYSSEN, 200),

i.e. as a dialectical entity analyzable in terms of both progress and destruction, but rather that postmodernism might „...harbor productive contradictions, perhaps even a critical and oppositional potential.“ (HUYSSEN, 200)

Whatever this ‘critical and oppositional potential’ consists of might be a result of a later analysis. Undoubtedly, however, we will come across the problem of the author as a subject, and the subjective as such, in probably any postmodern piece of literature. To be sure, this is no newly discovered ground: The rise of modernism was marked by a desperate search for the identity of the subject in a world where the mere existence of such an identity seemed to have become questionable. About this point all my observations about the specific characteristics of postmodern literature agree with Huyssen:

They [the postmoderns, M.O.] counter the modernist litany of the death of the subject by working toward new theories and practices of speaking, writing and acting subjects. The question of how codes, texts, images, and other cultural artefacts constitute subjectivity is increasingly being raised...“. (HUYSSEN, 213)

This problem seems to be one of the most manifest issues in postmodern literature, suggesting that it results from some shift in the social reality the writers/artists have to react to, a shift I will attempt to retrace in Roth’s writing. This shift may have something to do with a phenomenon Huyssen characterizes as “...the dilemma of being locked into our own culture and traditions while simultaneously recognizing their limitations.“ (HUYSSEN, 220)

What then can we make out as the specific features of postmodern representation of reality in arts following from such a shift in paradigms? In 1987, Ihab Hassan undertook the daring attempt to formulate certain narrative and artistic features and paradigms by means of which to differentiate postmodernism from modernism in his essay Toward a Concept of Postmodernism (1987). After having elaborated at length as to whether there is a phenomenon that needs to be distinguished from modernism at all, he claims that „...postmodernism may appear as a significant revision, if not original ‘episteme’, of twentieth-century Western societies...“ (HASSAN, 586), arguing as follows:

“I wanted to explore the impulse of self-unmaking which is part of the literary tradition of silence. Pop and silence, or mass culture and deconstructing, or Superman and Godot – or as I shall later argue, immanence and indeterminacy – may all be aspects of the postmodern universe.“ (HASSAN, 587)

As a conjunction of those two concepts Hassan coins the new term “indetermanence“, meaning the tendency in postmodernism to incorporate the different, though not dialectical, features of ‘indeterminacy’ and ‘immanence’. By indeterminacy Hassan means a tendency towards

“...ambiguity, discontinuity, heterodoxy, pluralism, randomness, revolt, perversion, deformation. The latter alone subsumes a dozen current terms of unmaking: decreation, disintegration, deconstruction, decenterment, displacement, difference, discontinuity, disjunction, disappearance, decomposition, de-definition, demystification, detotalization, delegitimization – let alone more technical terms referring to the rhetoric of irony, rupture, silence.” (HASSAN, 592)

By immanence, or rather immanences, Hassan describes

“...the capacity of mind to generalize itself in symbols, [...] act upon itself through its own abstractions and so become, increasingly, im-mediately, its own environment. This noetic tendency may be evoked by such sundry concepts as diffusion, dissemination, pulsion, interplay, communication, interdependence, which all derive from the emergence of human beings as language animals... [...] ...everywhere we encounter that immanence called Language...” (HASSAN, 593)

The conjunction of these two different tendencies to a characteristic of postmodern understanding leads to a major theme postmodernism is concerned with, and which we will find in Roth’s work as well, the playing with the processes of constructing and deconstructing identities and realities. In order to give a definition of postmodernism, Hassan proposes a “...fourfold vision of complementarities, embracing continuity and discontinuity, diachronie and synchronie.“ (HASSAN, 589) He comes to analyze ideas and concepts in many fields – “...rhetoric, linguistics, literary theory, philosophy, anthropology, psychanalysis, political science, even theology...” (HASSAN, 592) in terms of oppositional tendencies of modernism and postmodernism. I will take up only a few of those concepts, which I think bear some significance for the literary works we later want to have a look at. Postmodern writing is largely characterized by “...Antiform (disjunctive, open) ... Play ... Chance ... Exhaustion ... Participation [of the author as a subject in his writing, M.O.] ... Deconstruction ... Antithesis ... Rhetoric ... Scriptible (Writerly) ... Anti-narrative ... Schizophrenia ... Irony ...” (HASSAN, 591/592) Many of the features just named can be analyzed in Roth’s later work, as will be shown in later chapters.


[1] I am perfectly aware that there are female writers as well and that political correctness would require the use of both female and male forms. However, for the sake of readability I will exclusively use the ‘traditional’ male form of pronouns whenever it occurs.


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Philip Roth Deal Postmodern Reality Changes Fiction Writing American Postmodernism



Title: Philip Roth - How to Deal with Postmodern Reality, or, Changes in Fiction Writing.