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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Master Builder Philip #Roth by John von Daler


                Someone asked me recently what had been so great about Philip Roth teaching literature. The course was called Creative Writing, but I think what we actually learned was how to read.

                I was used to going to literature classes where I learned to classify: this or that period in this or that style equals this or that school or movement. Packaging my favorite authors like this always disturbed me. My favorites did not always fit in and poked awkwardly out of the required frame. I guess this was a necessary facet of literary criticism: corners had to be cut to make them fit.
                Roth did not see literature this way, nor did he teach it accordingly. The books he discussed were not packages, but structures. These buildings were built in a certain way. Now you are thinking, yes, yes, and they were Gothic or Romanesque or Greek or Baroque or whatever. I guess they were. But those headings did not interest him in our class. He took pains to look at the buildings in detail, holding up the various pieces of the structure and showing us exactly where they fitted in and precisely what they supported. He even removed supporting columns just to show how the whole thing could come tumbling down without them.
                Maybe it is important to learn about schools and movements and categories. Let literary critics discuss them. I have found that via Roth I learned some very simple and import things: Every detail in a book is placed there consciously or unconsciously by the author or his editor. Some details are more important than others. If you remove one or add another, the structure gets altered, often radically. It might even collapse.

               

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