On 18th March, Dr David Brauner made quite a splash when he delivered a conference paper entitled ‘Queering Philip Roth: Homosocial Discourse in the ‘American Trilogy’ at a big international event celebrating the 80th birthday of the author widely regarded as the most important living writer of fiction.
Dr Brauner, one of the world’s leading authorities on Roth, was speaking at the Roth@80 event (held in Newark, New Jersey, from March 18-19), which he had helped get off the ground, as Program Chair of the Philip Roth Society from 2008-2011.
Dr Brauner, from the University of Reading’s Department of English, said: “I’ve been reading and writing on Roth now for over twenty years and I still keep finding new things in his work. My recent research began when I was struck, re-reading his ‘American Trilogy’, by the way in which the physical qualities of the heroes of these novels are described in ways that, in a different writer, would look frankly homoerotic. I began to ask myself whether Roth’s reputation as a macho, even sexist, author had blinded us to the presence of a more complex sexuality in his work and sure enough I have traced a persistent strain of what I call homosocial discourse running through his work.”
Just as other authors conventionally regarded as aggressively heterosexual, such as Ernest Hemingway, have in recent years been re-read through the lens of Queer Theory, Dr Brauner expressed the ”hope that my findings will encourage fans of Roth and scholars around the world to re-examine his books and provoke debate about the ways in which Roth represents sexuality in his work.’
The highlight of the event was when Roth himself appeared at a starry reception held at the Newark Museum on Tuesday night. Dr Brauner, together with colleagues from the Roth Society, mingled with many of the most eminent figures in American literature. ‘It was as though my Contemporary American Fiction module had materialised in front of me,’ said Dr Brauner. ‘One of the first texts on the reading list for that course is White Noise ,and suddenly here is its author, Don DeLillo, in a purple sweater; then we move on to Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy – there he is, with his wife and fellow-novelist, Siri Hustvedt; and the course finishes with Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer – he’s over in that corner, chatting to his wife and fellow-novelist, Nicole Krauss. I began to think that even Thomas Pynchon, the notoriously reclusive author of The Crying of Lot 49, might be in attendance – who would know?!”
Philip Roth is rarely out of the news. In 2011, Carmen Calill resigned in protest from the committee that awarded Roth the Man Booker International Prize, and in an interview last year Roth announced his retirement – both stories prompting a flurry of debate on the internet. Roth is also perennially tipped for the Nobel Prize for Literature but continues, controversially, to be overlooked for the award – the only major prize to elude him.
Dr Brauner added: “If Roth really has written his last book, then that is a shame, because he’s one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century and, on the evidence of his last novel, Nemesis, has clearly still got a lot to offer. But I’m not convinced that he really has given up writing. He has a history of manipulating the media and, given his famously disciplined regimen (writing 365 days a year) and his consistently prolific output over so many years, I find it difficult to believe he can stop just like that.”
“His failure to win the Nobel Prize for Literature is scandalous and almost certainly has more to do with politics (no American author has won the award since Toni Morrison in 1993) and with the uncompromisingly combative nature of his work than its undoubted literary qualities.”
For more on the Roth@80 event, and Dr Brauner’s paper, click on the following link: