Philip Roth: New Perspectives on an American Author, edited by Derek Parker Royal. Westport: Praeger, 2005. 303 pp. $39.95.
Though Philip Roth's American Pastoral only won runner-up honors in The New York Times recent poll of the best work of American fiction of the past twenty-five years (losing out to Toni Morrison's Beloved), Roth was the only writer mentioned more than twice by the panel of contemporary critics and novelists who judged the contest; in fact, Roth made the list a stunning six times. As Derek Parker Royal says in his excellent introduction to a new essay collection, Philip Roth: New Perspectives on an American Author: "Of all contemporary American writers, Philip Roth is arguably the most ambitious. Unlike many ageing novelists, whose productive qualities wane over time. Roth has demonstrated a unique ability not only to sustain his literary output but even to surpass the scope and talent inherent in his previous writings" (p. 2).
As Royal suggests, Roth's recent spate of major literary awards has created a "revitalization of Roth studies within academia" (p. 2). Royal counts a total of six books, dozens of journal articles and numerous doctoral dissertations devoted to Philip Roth in the past few years alone. However, recently more than the critics have been obsessed with Roth's work; like Henry James appending critical prefaces to his novels, Roth has been attempting to beat critics at their own game by publishing many non-fiction works that analyze his compositional methods; in Shop Talk: A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Work and Reading Myself and Others, Roth attempts to codify criticism of himself. Adding to this recent trove of Roth material, the Library of America has already published three of a planned eight volumes of Roth's collected works, ensuring that none of his work will go out of print anytime soon.
Royal, who founded the Philip Roth Society and currently serves as the editor of the journal Philip Roth Studies, certainly manages to track all this renewed critical attention. New Perspectives contains a wealth of new information on this "American Author"; as a result, the volume will satisfy both the devoted Roth scholar and the casual reader interested in gaining a deeper understanding of Roth's work. Especially helpful to scholars is Royal's comprehensive bibliography of all Rothiana, including those early uncollected essays and stories published years ago.
The essays in Philip Roth: New Perspectives on an American Author are arranged chronologically, following Roth's career from its glorious beginning with Goodbye, Columbus up until his 2004 bestseller The Plot Against America. This organizing principle allows readers to revisit Roth's lesser known works, i.e., Letting Go and When She Was Good. Living up to this book's subtitle of "new perspectives on an American author,"Julie Husband convincingly argues that instead of thinking of these early works as failures or experiments which paved the way for his future success, these works might best be viewed as offering readers "an intriguing view of Roth's struggle with second-wave feminism" (p. 25).
Another strong point of this collection is that Royal has gathered a large and diverse group of contributors. Essays from established Jewish American literary critics, including Alan Cooper, Bonnie Lyons, and Elaine Safer (who has just published another excellent monograph on Philip Roth, Mocking the Age) sit side by side with younger critics eager to bring fresh critical perspectives to both Jewish American literature and to Philip Roth's work. …