Earlier this week, despite an odd late March sleet storm, a large number of Philip Roth devotees filled a room at the New School to witness a conversation billed as “Philip Roth and the Modern Jewish Predicament.”
Put on the Posen Foundation, there was wine and cheese and veggie sliders as well as the main course: a chance to listen to Liel Leibovitz and Adam Kirsch duke it out over Philip Roth’s legacy while Jacques Berlinerblau calmly mediated. Of course, the best part is that no one likely expected a fight, only another of those soft tributes honoring Roth as the whole world (except for Sweden and Iran) celebrated the author’s 80th birthday. But they didn’t know what Liel had up his sleeve. And they didn’t see it coming.
Halfway through as Liel savaged Roth’s writing, calling it misanthropic and sophomoric, comparing Roth’s career to that of Britney Spears, a portion of the audience began to cluck their tongues and sigh each time Liel began anew. “He’s such a narcissist,” a woman said (of Liel, not Roth). The only problem was Liel knew his stuff.
Ably defending Roth was Adam Kirsch. The three men discussed how other writers from Virginia Woolf to Updike to Joyce to Bellow matched up against Roth and delved deep into the Jewish condition. More intellectually rigorous than contentious, it went on for nearly two hours.
Below is the video. It’s a master class in debate, literature, and the art of conversation. Enjoy.
Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.