Philip Roth: 10 quotes on his birthday

Philip Roth is one of today’s most controversial and decorated literary heavyweights. His corpus – comprising several novels, short stories, memoirs, and criticism – anatomizes the art of writing, sexuality, the malleability of identity, spiritual malaise, and cultural anomie. Having won just about every major literary prize, Roth was named “America’s Best Novelist” by Time Magazine in 2001, and famed literary critic Harold Bloom includes six of Roth’s novels in his "Western Canon." However, his fiction continues to elicit the ire of Jewish-Americans, gays, and feminists. Steve Martin, delivering the citation for Roth’s 2002 National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters observed, “Like three great modern writers he deeply admires, Franz Kafka, William Faulkner, and Saul Bellow, Philip Roth has invented a style by turns obsessive, lyrical, erudite, and of necessity, painfully human.” Below are 10 quotes to celebrate Roth’s 79th birthday.

1.The human condition

Is an intelligent human being likely to be much more than a large-scale manufacturer of misunderstanding? (The Counterlife)


Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre. (Everyman)

A dose of madness

Roth in 1968. (Bob Peterson/Time Life Pictures)

A writer has to be driven crazy to help him to see. A writer needs his poisons.

Fiction writing

Roth at home in Connecticut. (Douglas Healey/AP)

Literature isn’t a moral beauty contest. Its power arises from the authority and audacity with which the impersonation is pulled off; the belief it inspires is what counts.

Sardonic wit

Roth in New York. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

Sheer Playfulness and Deadly Seriousness are my closest friends.

Hostility about hostility

The dirty little secret is no longer sex; the dirty little secret is hatred and rage.

Fallibility of judgment

The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive: we're wrong. (American Pastoral)

The problem with culture

Roth in New York City. (Orjan F. Ellingvag/Dagbladet/Corbis)

In an enormous commercial society that demands complete freedom of expression, the culture is a maw.

Articulation of emotions

Actually we did not have the feelings we said we had until we spoke them ­– at least I didn’t; to phrase them was to invent them and own them. (Goodbye, Columbus)

The bottomless self

The world is full of people who go around believing they’ve got you or your neighbor figured out, there really is no bottom to what is not known. The truth about us is endless. As are the lies. (The Human Stain)