I can’t explain why I chose The Plot Against America as my rapprochement. Oddly, it is Roth dipping his toes into alternative history, which is a literary maestro’s way of writing science fiction without condemnation. (There’s also alternative fiction, which might not even be a term, for when you write a new version of an old book- say telling the Jekyll/Hyde story from a new perspective. That may not be science fiction, but rather fantasy, but then again, most people don’t distinguish. Maybe they shouldn’t.)
The book is fantastic, which comes as no surprise to people who read Roth regularly. I’m sure that his followers have that list of writer foibles and tics as well as favorites, just like every reader of King or Updike or Shakespeare. Yet, I can only compare it to that early exposure. Maybe I should have read Portnoy or Columbus from the first page through to the last. No writer ever writes a book thinking “These next few pages should be ideal for skimming.”
What strikes me is how that youthful prejudice proved so lasting. In fact, those experiences with literary bestsellers colored my whole impression of the field and made them look like an insurmountable marathon. I remain a difficult sale, but I think that reflects a changing world as much as the residue from previous reads.
While it seems like people read less and less (which does seem explicitly unverifiable), the market of books has expanded grotesquely. The democratization of art markets sounds ideal. I like the idea that people have a chance to share their work with the world. I’m also not too sure that the distinction between professional and amateur was ever as clear-cut as self-defined professionals would have consumers believe.
Breaking through the paper ceiling
From a consumer perspective, it becomes difficult to identify quality. What if I don’t exactly want the flavor of the month from the big reviewers (Times, New Yorker, etc.)? After all, those works sometimes seem precious and praised by the same academic circles that produced the books in the first place. I can no longer turn to my friends for suggestions. Nowadays, they read specialty magazines or blogs or flash fiction or their other friend’s self-published memoir. I might like any of those, but they don’t cry out to me like a catered book that has reached cultural critical mass.
I found it difficult to dive into the world of national book award winners, like the Pulitzer, the Booker, and, well, the National Book Award. Should I read Chabon or Ingalls or Johnson? I strongly suspected that any selection would be well-crafted and properly edited. So, the choices boiled down to what looked interesting. And there was my old friend, Philip Roth.
I did read the others, too. Actually, I read them first, as I still carried the early impressions of Roth still. They were well-crafted and properly edited. I want to say that they fell into a pattern, but that would be disingenuous. At best, I could say that they had similar mouth feel, to borrow a term from gastronomy, which people seem to use when they want to refer to a certain something indefinable.