Philip Roth, Indignation, and the difference between literary success and story success
I’m a big Philip Roth fan (maybe for some reason I am particularly interested in Jewish writers from New Jersey), but Indignation isn’t very good: slight as best, exercise at worst. It’s not that the main character is unlikable; all Roth protagonists are jerks in one way or another. It’s that this jerk narrator is boring and what happens to him is uninteresting. He complains, he reacts to things that happen to him, he dies. That’s it. For an author who excels at creating repulsive protagonists you want to read about forever (hello, Mickey Sabbath!), this is disappointing. But even greats produce subpar work (among New Jersey artists, this is known as the Human Touch rule).
I write that having just finished it in one evening. So what am I doing dismissing a book I devoured all at once? How bad could it be, really, if I couldn’t put it down? It’s because of what Robert McKee identifies as the difference between literary talent and story talent. Roth’s spectacular literary talent grabbed me and pulled me through the book. His sentences are elegant, highly charged, surprising, as always. But the story is hackneyed, tossed-off, nowhere near as considered as the words Roth uses to tell it. Technically, Indignation is strong and lots of fun. But those marvelous words and sentences and paragraphs are wasted on a character and a story unworthy of them. Literary talent isn’t uncommon; story talent is. Roth has both by the truckload and it’s a surprise when the latter abandons him, even if only this one time. In traditional fiction, it doesn’t matter how thrilling the sentences are if they’re not in the service of a story.
I, of course, don’t have a fraction of Roth’s story talent. He’s written 25 novels, most of them of the top rank, and I’ve written, oh, let me count … zero. So feel free to ignore me. But maybe novices can be heartened that even their heroes don’t knock it out of the park every time. And that reminds me: I have something else I should be writing right now…