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The Possessed

No Ouija board required: on Philip Roth’s writing, legacy, and a new biography

This month will see the release of Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth: The Biography—the authorized biography of the famous novelist, who died in 2018. Roth himself selected Bailey to write his life story. In addition to many long conversations, Roth granted Bailey complete access to his personal archives and helped set up interviews with many of his friends, lovers, and colleagues.

In the March issue of Harper’s Magazine, the novelist and Harper’s contributing editor Joshua Cohen imagines how Bailey’s book might be received by Roth himself. From the comfort of his writing studio beyond the grave, Cohen’s Roth ruminates on the strange, perhaps self-destructive decision to commission his own biography, and proceeds to lament the result, which, he argues, downplays the literary production that made up most of his days (“MY BIOGRAPHER HAS NO INTEREST IN MY WRITING!!!!”) in favor of “interminable chapters and decades of reputation management, alternating with, if not relieved by, sexual transgressions.” Cohen’s ventriloquism of Roth is a gambit one has to think the author would have admired. As Cohen points out in this interview, Roth, too, had a penchant for throwing his voice.

In this episode of the podcast, Violet Lucca talks with Cohen about Philip Roth’s long career and his unclear legacy. Among other things, they discuss Roth’s late decree that “the book can’t compete with the screen”; his often unacknowledged influence on today’s American immigrant writers, as well as writers of autofiction; and an afterlife—or do we find ourselves there now?—in which everything will be as it is, just a little different.

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December 2015

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