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Philip Roth -- THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA

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Jeremy Lassen
Posted on Tuesday, October 12, 2004 - 05:20 pm:   

Once again, a world renown LITERARY author lowers himself to put on the drag of “Speculative fiction”. This time, its Phillop Roth and Alternative History.

Philip Roth tackles the mother of all alternative history clichés... what if the US stayed out of world war 2. What if the US's own Anti-Semitism ran amok during and after the "war years", creating a “fascist” USA, with Charles Lindbergh as our insane/racist demagogue/president. Sounds like fun.

Here's the New York Times’ take on it:
http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C05EEDF1E39F930A35753C1A9629C8B6 3

Here's the Washington Post’s take on it:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A63751-2004Sep30.html

I would kill to see John Clute's take on this book.


I heard Terry Gross interviewing Roth on the raido last night, on Fresh Air, wherein many plot points and conceits of the novel were revealed.

My main thought is, once again, the techniques and qualities that the "LITEARRY" genre espouses as virtues rear their heads, at the expense of the elements that would make it a good SF novel...

Mr. Roth engages in his "stupid Roth trick" of making himself and his family the center of the story. The literary genre mantra of writing what you know is taken to the Nth degree by Roth, who quite literally, imagines himself in the fictional environments that he creates. He doesn’t just create characters that express his viewpoints or expierences. Rather Philip Roth the child, circa 1941, is the central character.

It is this personal viewpoint that, to my mind, undercuts, and takes away the sweeping power and scope that the Alternate history form can have. Even if you chose to tell the story from a personal perspective, with limited viewpoints, the chose to explicitly identify one character as the sole author’s viewpoint character limits the amount of identification the readers will have with anybody on the oppisite “side” of the viewpoint character. Right and wrong, good and bad… its all clearly delineated. Any sense of grey areas are washed aside by this narrative choice.

Compare Roth's decision to write a literary alternative history novel from his own childhood viewpoint to that of Kim Stanly Robinson's narrative structure and character viewpoints in THE YEARS OF RICE AND SALT.

Compare Roth's narrative to those of the more notorious alternative history scribes -- Turtledove, et al.

Having read nether Roth's book, nor Turtledove's work, I am not asking rhetorically here... can someone compare these for me?

I think Roth's version of Alternate history says a lot about the genre of "literary fiction" and the conceits it starts with, and the qualities it values... I suspect that the differences in aesthetic values between SF's alternate history, (even "literary" SF alternate history such as THE YEARS OF RICE AND SALT) and Roth's Literary epic in SF drag are quite substantial.

Can anyone confirm or debase this supposition?
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AliceB
Posted on Wednesday, October 13, 2004 - 06:43 am:   

Jeremy, I can neither confirm nor refute. But I can give a different point of view.

I suspect that there really isn't as much difference between mainstream literature and speculative fiction as folks in either camp might claim. I believe it's mainly a question of marketing.

Roth's individual real self as the start off point of view is not typical, in any genre (except perhaps in some lines of nonfiction). Zadie Smith's WHITE TEETH, Myla Goldberg's BEE SEASON, Michael Faber's THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE, Larry McMurtry's LONESOME DOVE, Louise Erdrich's LOVE MEDICINE, THE DAVINCI CODE, a host of novels by Salman Rushdie were all "mainstream" bestsellers. None of them were written from the author's point of view. Also, perhaps more to my point, all of them fit some genre other than "mainstream" or "literary fiction" and yet they were marketed as such.

I think it was Nick Mamatas who pointed out that speculative fiction is, can and should be sold in mainstream markets--not to knock sf/f markets, but because the readership is out there, and it is a readership that won't necessarily pick out a sf/f magazine or a book in the sf/f section of the bookstore. They read speculative fiction all the time, but it isn't marketed as such.

I haven't read Roth's novel--and am not inclined to--but if Roth fans like it, they may decide to look at other such speculative fiction, written by someone else. And that, I'd say, is a Good Thing.

Best,
Alice
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JV
Posted on Wednesday, October 13, 2004 - 06:51 am:   

You know, Philip Roth is a damn fine author. And he might put himself into his books more often than is necessary, but the device does work from time to time. And it may be a necessary trick in some cases for a book to come alive for him. I haven't read the novel, but I will be reading the novel and I'm curious to see what Roth has come up with.

JeffV
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Tamar
Posted on Wednesday, October 13, 2004 - 10:18 am:   

Do we really have to keep on doing this literary v. genre point-scoring? It's so depressing and anti-creative.
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Luís
Posted on Wednesday, October 13, 2004 - 01:17 pm:   

Tamar Yellin 1 - Literary vs genre point-scorers nil
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Jeremy Lassen
Posted on Wednesday, October 13, 2004 - 05:07 pm:   

Well, there is a dividing line between the science fiction genre, and the literary genre. I'm not saying the divisions between the two genres are "good" or "bad". Or that they are easily and clearly defined.

I'm just wondering out loud. Contrary to what Tamar suggests, I think it is a creative act to look at the different narrative traditions that a work springs from... thus even if they are working in the same form, or sub genre, much might be learned about the works by examining these contextual differences critically.

I didn't mean for my post to come off as "Literary writers bad... you guys stay away from SF" I'm just interested in this form of literary criticism -- Do the traditions that Roth has worked in make his "alternate history" book substantively different from a "SF author's" (Whatever that means) Alternate history book?

I'm glad AliceB brought up Salman Rushdie. I very much like his work, but I think the differing literary traditions that I reffered to have in fact palyed a role in making something like his novel Midnight’s Children a very different kind of "fantasy" then what might have come from a writer with a more populist/SFgenre/whatever kind of background.

Please don’t mistake me… I’m not badmouthing Midnight’s Children because of this, nor badmouthing fantasy that comes out of the SF genre. I’m simply stating.. I LOVE Midnight's Children. One of the reasons I love it is because it is DIFFERENT from the fantastic novels that I have experienced "in genre". I want to understand better how/where and why these differences occur. Many writers today are explicitly playing around with audience/genre expectations, and redeploying and mixing the literary traditions and contexts of each of both the Literary and fantastic genres, with varying degrees of success.

I think we can examine and talk about these inevitable differences in tradition and context, and be richer for the experience.

Anyway. Sorry if I'm beating a dead horse. My intention is not to divide and cast out, but to examine and understand. I probably didn’t convey this very well, and probably many are sick of looking into these differences. To each their own.
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JV
Posted on Thursday, October 14, 2004 - 06:31 am:   

Why is there a dividing line? Who put it there? What the hell is "literary" mainstream fiction? Does that mean SF is not "literary"? What does "SF" mean? Is it different from slipstream? Is slipstream interstitial? Is the interstitial new weird? What about space opera? What's up with that? Is space opera literary sometimes? Is hard SF ever about people rather than gadgets? Is the only difference between genre and the mainstream the insertion of your middle initial into your name? What about Lethem? He started out in SF--now he's literary: can you just go and *do* that? Shouldn't it be illegal? Where does "fantasy" fit into all of this? Is Kelly Link writing mainstream stories with a fantasy element or fantasy stories with a mainstream element? Does it matter to anyone? Is Alasdair Gray fantasy or literary mainstream? Again, what does "literary" mean? What does "mainstream" mean? Is "SF" "anti-mainstream"? Are the cyberpunks washed up? Was splatterpunk ever a movement? What about steampunk? What the fuck was up with steampunk? What's this rumor about populists making better fantasy than elites? What the hell is an elite in this context? Are we going to start checking writer incomes? Is China an elite or a populist given his upbringing? And just who are these goddamn "genre snobs" we're always hearing about? Has anyone from genre ever written a mainstream novel and been severely beaten about the face, extremities, and torso for doing so? What in the effing hell was Atwood *thinking* writing that thar Handmaiden's Tale? When is Joyce Carol Oates going to slow down and stop hopping back and forth between genre and the literary mainstream? What the heck is the "literary" mainstream? What the heck is "genre"? Why is it that Rushdie can spend 100 pages of contemplation on top of a hill in one of his novels and get away with it but if you tried that shit with a genre publisher you'd have your ears ripped off and your eyes gouged out? And is that even true? And why the *fuck* did Richard Grant go all new-agey/airy-fairy on us? Was he just trying to fit into the "literary" mainstream? Where can I just get some goddamn fiction without a side of labels?! AND JUST WHAT THE FUCK IS THE LITERARY MAINSTREAM ANYWAY?!

Sincerely,

Jeff Has Just Had a Strong Chai
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Chimeric Industries
Posted on Thursday, October 14, 2004 - 06:51 am:   

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neilw
Posted on Thursday, October 14, 2004 - 07:06 am:   

You know the BBC are running a very heartening series at the moment about writing in Scotland - a timely introspective as Edinburgh looks likely to be named soon by UNESCO as the first world city of literature. Every week, this show focuses on an aspect of Scottish writing, covering the whole gamut of literature, and the episode relating to Fantasy (http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/arts/writingscotland/learning_journeys/scottish_fa ntasies/), which covered the historical spectrum from James Hogg to Alasdair Gray to Iain Banks, made no attempt to devalue the work because of its escapist nature. Pretty much the contrary in fact.

Jeff - you've had enough of that go-go juice for one day, buddy.
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AliceB
Posted on Thursday, October 14, 2004 - 07:09 am:   

Literary mainstream = got a nice display in the center aisle at B&N

Genre = it's on one of those side shelves

Literature = a book that's still read 100 years from now...sorry, can't tell you if what's on the shelf today fits
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JV
Posted on Thursday, October 14, 2004 - 07:12 am:   

All of my questions were rhetorical. Hope it was worth a laugh.

Mark--you have a fake disease guide to shepherd. No time for genre labeling... :-)
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des
Posted on Thursday, October 14, 2004 - 07:21 am:   

I like my fiction to be 'surprising' and lead me into unxpected directions for my reading. Therefore, I eschew any clue whatsoever to the contents on the cover.
That's why I've not read anything written above before writing this.
des
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Mark
Posted on Thursday, October 14, 2004 - 10:19 am:   

Don't worry Jeff, it's only Chimeric BRANDED. The calls go right through to a call-centre in Mumbai.
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Nick Mamatas
Posted on Thursday, October 14, 2004 - 11:06 am:   

Why is there a dividing line?

The emergent middle class of the 19th century needed cultural signifiers at the dawn of the age of mass production.

Who put it there?

William Dean Howells.

What the hell is "literary" mainstream fiction?

Realist fiction which privileges the examination of character psychology by depicting the everyday, or its mutant offspring which privileges the examination of reader psychology by detourning everyday language.

Does that mean SF is not "literary"?

No.

What does "SF" mean?

San Francisco.

Is it different from slipstream?

Yes.

Is slipstream interstitial?

No, only the former exists.

Is the interstitial new weird?

No, though they do share an attribute: neither exist.

What about space opera?

Space Opera is not San Francisco.

What's up with that?

Not much.

Is space opera literary sometimes?

Not likely.

Is hard SF ever about people rather than gadgets?

Hard SF is often not about gadgets, but principles.

Is the only difference between genre and the mainstream the insertion of your middle initial into your name?

I don't have a middle name! You see, among Greeks the first born song is given as his first name his paternal grandfather's name and as his middle name his maternal grandfather's name. But my mother's father was estranged for years and only started sniffing around his children again when my imminent arrival was announced. My mother rejected his unctuous overtures and cursed him to eventual nonexistence by keeping my middle name out of it. I would have been middle-named after her stepfather (also, oddly enough, a paternal uncle), but his name was also Nick and Nick Nick Mamatas would just be silly.

What about Lethem?

What about him?

He started out in SF--now he's literary: can you just go and *do* that?

If you go to Bennington you can.

Shouldn't it be illegal?

Bennington grads should never consider themselves bound by any human law.

Where does "fantasy" fit into all of this?

How does a sheet fit over two writhing bodies engaged in intercourse?

Is Kelly Link writing mainstream stories with a fantasy element or fantasy stories with a mainstream element?

Those are the same thing, when Kelly writes them.

Does it matter to anyone?

Apparently.

Is Alasdair Gray fantasy or literary mainstream?

San Francisco.


Again, what does "literary" mean?

See above.

What does "mainstream" mean?

Those books read by non-readers.


Is "SF" "anti-mainstream"?

Oh it likes to think so, but it's just another town full of middle-class bourgeois bohéme.

Are the cyberpunks washed up?

Yes.

Was splatterpunk ever a movement?

As were my bowels.

What about steampunk?

I've never shat steam, but I've come close.

What the fuck was up with steampunk?

Not a lot.

What's this rumor about populists making better fantasy than elites?

It's a rumor based on very small samples.

What the hell is an elite in this context?

Anyone who admits to thinking during a movie.

Are we going to start checking writer incomes?

That would teach a few lessons, wouldn't it.

Is China an elite or a populist given his upbringing?

Elite.

And just who are these goddamn "genre snobs" we're always hearing about?

Meeee!

Has anyone from genre ever written a mainstream novel and been severely beaten about the face, extremities, and torso for doing so?

Well, I always wanted to pummel Ray Garton for betraying the spirit of the movie Good Burger with his novelization.

What in the effing hell was Atwood *thinking* writing that thar Handmaiden's Tale?

Newt Gingrich is eeeeevil!

When is Joyce Carol Oates going to slow down and stop hopping back and forth between genre and the literary mainstream?

About four years after she dies.

What the heck is the "literary" mainstream?

Those books read by non-readers who wish to be known as readers.

What the heck is "genre"?

Genre is how we decide cover art.

Why is it that Rushdie can spend 100 pages of contemplation on top of a hill in one of his novels and get away with it but if you tried that shit with a genre publisher you'd have your ears ripped off and your eyes gouged out?

Well, Robert Jordan has spent that many pages on someone walking down a hill.

And is that even true?

Nah, genre publishers are Milquetoast wimps.

And why the *fuck* did Richard Grant go all new-agey/airy-fairy on us?

Did he move to SF?

Was he just trying to fit into the "literary" mainstream?

Keep reaching for that rainbow!

Where can I just get some goddamn fiction without a side of labels?!

Bus depots.

AND JUST WHAT THE FUCK IS THE LITERARY MAINSTREAM ANYWAY?!

See above.
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JV
Posted on Thursday, October 14, 2004 - 04:57 pm:   

Oh my god. I should have guessed you'd do that. LOL!

JeffV
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Jeremy Lassen
Posted on Thursday, October 14, 2004 - 05:14 pm:   

See. now THESE are the kinds of questions and answers I was trying stimulate… maybe with less caffeine and condensation, but Jeff and Nick kind of nailed the discussion.

Thanks guys.

Now everyone can go back to reading books that have no marketing, or labels or literary antecedents whatsoever, and exist in the vacuum of their own creation.
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Jeremy Lassen
Posted on Tuesday, November 30, 2004 - 11:06 am:   

Said by me, early in this thread "I would like to see John Clute's take on this book".

Ask and you shall (eventually recieve):
http://www.scifi.com/sfw/issue397/excess.html

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