By Jack Engelhard
I have never read a book this awful – ever!
Philip Roth’s latest novel, “The Humbling,” is a about an aging actor who finds that he’s lost his touch. He can’t act anymore. This could be a metaphor for a writer (Roth) who can’t write anymore. This is the worst novel Roth ever wrote. This is the worst novel ANYONE ever wrote.
The narrative starts off promisingly enough, as we learn about this actor’s onset of stage-fright, his near-suicidal crack-up.
We expect to learn more about this, how it happened, why it happened – and then move on to his rehabilitation (whether it succeeds or not). We hope to learn the inside workings of this craft and we anticipate a tour behind the scenes. What’s it like inside the mind of an actor? What’s the world of theater really like?
Nothing like this happens. After the first few pages, the novel devolves into this man’s love affairs, nothing besides, and all of it told in repetitive and boring detail. This is absolute garbage! Let’s not even talk about the porn scene. If you read it you’ll be so creeped out you’ll never have sex again.
So what’s the outrage? It’s that struggling writers, those not named Philip Roth, would never get past the First Reader with such crap.
As I’ve said before about Roth, “This isn’t writing; this is kvetching.” But I never knew it could get this bad. Publishers Weekly, naturally, found merits in the book because he is Philip Roth and you’re not (and PW has its pets). Not so other reviewers. Even the New York Times saw it as “a lazy work.”
Still, thousands of copies of this book were sold because it is tagged Philip Roth. The publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, obviously took the view, and the marketing approach, that “The Suckers Will Buy Anything.” Stick a label on it – Famous Writer Writes Again — and they will come. This sort of publishing isn’t literature; it is cynicism.
No wonder so many of us are turning to alternative writing and reading – the Internet and self-publishing; Bypass Literature. Sad but true that writers with real talent must pay to get their works published, while others, like Roth, get paid. Doesn’t seem fair. Walt Whitman could not get any takers so he began as a self-published author. Jack London spells out his vexations in his bio/novel “Martin Eden,” in which he tells us about the snobberies and indignities he faced in getting published.
So nothing much has changed except that it’s getting worse for writers who are genuine.
Read this book of Roth’s (rather, don’t read this book) to know how far we have fallen from the heights of Whitman, Twain, Hemingway and Salinger. Naturally, however, this empty, awful and terrible novel may yet find its Pulitzer since it was written by a literary darling.
It’s not my business to know what Roth was paid in advance for this fake of a novel, but thousands (millions?) for sure. That money could have gone incrementally to scores of writers who write sincerely and who bleed for recognition, but instead paper their walls with rejection slips. That money is gone – gone in a lump sum to one man.
We’ll never know many books worthy of publication were doomed to make room for this travesty, but surely a thousand books were scorned and a thousand writers were sacrificed so that this one book might live. No editor in his or her right mind could possibly find anything of value in a work of fiction that meanders indulgently and narcissistically from one monotonous speech onto another.
Was there no editor to flag this “book?” Was there no one to take Roth aside and whisper, “Is this a joke?”
Do we still have editors? Do we still have publishers – publishers who really care? The shame of it isn’t Roth himself. The shame of it is that a publisher would foist something like this upon the public. As long as we continue to buy the second-rate, the fake and the artificial, we will continue to be duped by the masters of our culture who view us as fools.
(Yes I know that by attacking a member of the Fraternity I leave myself wide open. But someone’s got to speak up for writers who never get a chance.)
Jack Engelhard’s latest novel, “Slot Attendant: A Novel About A Novelist,” is available in paperback from Amazon. Engelhard wrote the international bestselling novel “Indecent Proposal’ that was translated into more than 22 languages and turned into a Paramount motion picture starring Robert Redford and Demi Moore. He can be reached at www.jackengelhard.com