Roth on voice — in audio

On Fresh Air, Philip Roth answers questions about his early works as the Library of America’s anthologies appear.

Roth declines to read sections aloud. You can almost feel him cringing when Terry Gross pulls out snippets of dialogue and solicits his comments on them. Saying he hasn’t read his first four books in “oh, I don’t know, thirty years?” he dismisses them as his “apprentice work.”

Early in a writer’s career, he says:

You don’t know what your natural writing voice is, and you don’t know where your freedom lies as a writer — where you can find your verbal freedom. I certainly didn’t know. What I was trying to find in that novella, Goodbye, Columbus, was a kind of colloquial, loose voice that could accommodate both ordinary speech and a little bit of lyricism….

In the other stories in that volume, there are different voices, you know? The first four books … could have been written by four different people…. There’s no consistent voice, there’s no consistent approach, there’s no way in which I’ve mastered writing a novel. I hadn’t mastered it. I was trying to figure out what a novel was.

“Each time I started a book,” he recalls, “I didn’t know how to do it.” Then he pauses and adds, “Now, that’s not changed.”


You might want to subscribe to my free Substack newsletter, Ancestor Trouble, if the name makes intuitive sense to you.