Does Philip Roth Deserve a Nobel?

Tuesday October 30, 2012

By Guide Biography: Patrick Kennedy

For some readers, Philip Roth is a novelist of unbounded energy and intellect: the closest thing America has to a Russian master like Gogol, Tolstoy, or Dostoevsky. For others, he's a mediocrity who should have had the good sense to shut up after his second or third book. The debate hasn't stopped yet. In fact, every October the debate gets a new impetus. That's because every October (this one included) Roth fails to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

But should Roth take home a Nobel? There are some very good arguments both for and against, and let's start with the arguments for. First, we are talking about an enormously influential prose stylist. Second, with "Great American Novels" like American Pastoral and The Human Stain, Roth has written the kind of literature that Nobel laureates like Hemingway and Faulkner used to write. And third, "great American novelist" or not, Roth has also positioned himself as a cosmopolitan writer. And the Nobel rightly honors cosmopolitanism.

Now the case against. You could argue that Roth's latest works (novels like Everyman, Indignation, and Nemesis) are unambitious, warmed-over, an insult to Roth fans and Roth foes alike. Does stuff like this deserve a Nobel? You could also argue that Roth's style has sunk into decadence and predictability, or that Roth's female characters are still, after all these years, maddeningly one- or two-dimensional. Does this deserve a Nobel?

Well, does it? Let me know your opinions of Roth, good, bad, or ugly. But in any case, keep Roth's cosmopolitanism well in mind. I'll say more on this head in another post.


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