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How the King of Shmutz Won the World

This award proves, once and for all, that Roth isn’t too obscene. Nor is he too American, or too male, or too Jewish.

Josh Lambert
October 11, 2013
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine, original photo James Vaughan/Flickr))
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine, original photo James Vaughan/Flickr))

For full coverage of Philip Roth’s Nobel Prize, please click here.

Here’s how I received the good news. I was teaching Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying to my American Lit class at the University of Massachusetts early yesterday morning, and I ended the session with a riff on how the Nobel Prize in Literature awarded in November 1950 transformed Faulkner from a critically acclaimed but seldom read Southern modernist into the great American author he’s been ever since. Then, figuring this would be a clever way to wrap up—since we’d all been in class for a couple of hours, and the news hadn’t yet broken when we started—I said, “Hey, I think they may have announced this year Nobel’s while we were sitting here. Can somebody check?” One student immediately said, “Yeah, I just got a text from the New York Times Book Review—it’s Philip Roth.”

To which I replied, involuntarily, “Holy fucking shit.”

My outburst, and my obvious glee, cracked the students up, but it wasn’t the least-appropriate thing I could have said. Roth, after all, is the author who proclaimed in the late ‘60s that his aim was “to raise obscenity to the level of a subject,” and who, a decade earlier than that, had reportedly told a friend shocked by the “intimate sexual revelations” in his early story “Epstein,” that “the shmutz is the story.”

Over the past decade or so, while a chorus of voices—first bewildered, and then appalled—have protested the Swedish Academy’s perennial slighting of Roth, the supposition has often been floated that the Bard of Newark is just too filthy, too Jewishly sex-obsessed, to earn the Academy’s favor.

That argument never made much sense to me. Any number of laureates have been equally vulnerable to the charge of high-brow pornography. Isaac Bashevis Singer wasn’t exactly a nun, and Elfride Jelinek’s most famous novel, The Piano Teacher, is at least as kinky as anything Roth has done.

And yesterday’s announcement proves, once and for all, that Roth isn’t too obscene. Nor is he too American, or too male, or too Jewish, for the ne plus ultra of literary prizes. Despite all the ink that has been spilled in recent years, we can now be sure that the Swedish Academy isn’t full of out-of-touch Swedish prigs, and that they aren’t enforcing some secret numerus clausus that declares that because Bellow won, Roth never will. (This even suggests a glimmer of hope for all those readers of contemporary Yiddish literature who have resigned themselves to the belief that Bashevis’ prize means that their language will never again receive any serious consideration from the Swedes.)

When Roth delivers his acceptance speech in December, he may well strike his most respectable pose, familiar now from the documentaries and profiles he has inspired in recent years: the serious intellectual author of politically brilliant novels like American Pastoral and The Plot Against America, for whom Portnoy’s Complaint is “a youthful indiscretion,” embarrassing to revisit. Certainly the academy’s citation, with its vague reference to the “controversies” his work has occasioned, opens that door.

But for now, I hope a few of you will join me in basking in the possibility that the Nobel Committee has recognized Roth not in spite of the glorious phone sex, not in spite of “fuck my pussy, Fuckface, till I faint,” not in spite of the blowjobs and threesomes with Italian whores and anal play and menstrual fetishes and all that fingering in Parisian taxis, but because of all of that. Now that the Academy has restored our faith in them, a little, by awarding the prize to a writer who clearly deserves it, can we venture to hope that they might have deemed Roth fit for this high honor because, in their heart of hearts, they realize just how much Roth’s holy fucking shit has contributed to world culture? Can we imagine that the Swedes have finally come around to realize that “the shmutz is the story”?

Josh Lambert’sUnclean Lips: Jews, Obscenity, and American Culture will be published in December.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.