Taking Sides in the Great Literary Divide Between Nabokov and Roth

Author Joshua Ferris used to believe in 'art for art's sake.' Then he read The Human Stain.
Doug McLean

There’s perhaps no more ardent proponent of “art for art’s sake” than the Vladimir Nabokov of Strong Opinions. In that book of self-interviews, Nabokov repeatedly skewers the notion that art should have social orientation. For him, fiction presents its own new reality, glimpsed through the looking glass of an author’s aesthetic and linguistic obsessions. Nabokov’s ideal novel owes nothing to what we might collectively call “real life.”

Joshua Ferris, author of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, began as a devotee of Nabokov’s aesthetic purism. But another writer knocked him from that stance. As he explains in his essay for this series, the politically charged works of Philip Roth taught Ferris about the literary implications of his own privilege, and the value of looking outward at our world.

Ferris’s work suffuses Roth’s engagement with contemporary social and ethical problems with Nabokov’s taste for fantasy and the surreal. His latest features a narrator with Portnoy-like neuroses: Dr. Paul O’Rourke is a world-weary dentist, sex-obsessed and chronically flossing, a Facebook-reviling Luddite who feels more isolated than ever in our tech-enabled world of “friends” and “followers.” When an online doppelganger creates a website for Paul’s practice, and social media accounts in his name, he starts to uncover the existence of a shadowy cult that unsettles his sense of who he is, and might be.  

Joshua Ferris’s first book, Then We Came to the End, won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. One of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” writers to watch, he lives in New York City.


Joshua Ferris: From Philip Roth’s acceptance speech, in 2006, for the PEN/Nabokov award, given to a living author whose body of work “is of enduring originality and consummate craftsmanship”:

First, opening remarks from February 1988, when I received the National Book Critics Circle award for The Counterlife. Quote: “Since it’s the experience of most writers that prizes invariably go to the wrong people, I take it that this year I am the wrong person.” Eighteen years later, that still holds. And I’m sure that Vladimir Nabokov would agree, by the way.

He’s probably right. Nabokov believed fiction should provide only “aesthetic bliss.” Nabokov’s books are playful, allusive, referential; they’re hostile to the earnest autobiographical investigation; they’re loyal only to structure and style. He is an Olympian conjuror, a metaphysical metafictionalist. His narratives pull the rug on reality and slip the noose of death. Roth’s work—historically informed, politically conscious, biographically interrogating, socially indicting, and existentially preoccupied—would likely not have gained Nabokov’s narrow approval. Roth’s metafiction is ontological in nature and depends on death’s brutal facticity. In book after book, Nabokov creates idiosyncratic, heightened, elaborately constructed worlds; Roth’s one book investigates and exhausts his world, the given world.

When I was younger, I preferred Nabokov. Which meant that I wanted to write books of a Nabokovian texture, weaving together imagination, artifice, gamesmanship, cruelty, and passion. By contrast Roth, preoccupied by Newark and revolts against tribalism and sexual preoccupations and death, might have seemed minor, provincial. But you can’t choose what kind of writer you become; aesthetics is handmaiden to temperament. By dint of nativity, or culture, or epoch, or perspective, I was more temperamentally aligned with Roth.

But I could not have been more biographically different. I was born a cracker in a cracker town. Tradition was a corn festival in summer. The man in cut-off jeans watering the lawn with a dangling cigarette—that was my dad. A man with schemes and a poker habit. The woman in a halter sunbathing on the lawn chair with her feet in a buggy baby pool—that was my mom, ever in search of a dead daddy’s love. Both of them mutts lost in the interior. The once-wide trail leading to some meaningful ancestral rootedness or family heritage had resolved by then to a black dot. If we had a Sabbath meal, it was the price of Christmas presents; if we had a High Holiday, it centered around beer. Then divorce plowed through my childhood like a John Deere backhoe. There were stepmothers; one was a Mormon. There were stepfathers; one held 13 different jobs in 12 months, including vacuum salesman.

All I had going for me was no small thing: I was a white man in a white man’s world. I didn’t ask for the privileges that no doubt came my way; I didn’t need to. I was taught—by parents, by teachers, by TV, by a thousand million subliminal messages, and by who knows how many more indomitable forces—that I was a singular individual, limitless, unshackled, infinitely deserving of investment. I was defined by nothing; circumscribed by nothing; held back by no gender bias or skin color or religious affiliation, by no conspicuous feature. I was America’s son.

And so when I began to read seriously, I could take freely to Nabokov’s dictum of aesthetic bliss above all else. I wasn’t a political being. I was, of course, a political actor; everyone is. It’s just that the white man in a white man’s world is often blind to all the ways in which he acts.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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