Critical Mass

Celebrating Philip Roth #2: 1988 Acceptance Speech for “The Counterlife”

By Jane Ciabattari

Critical Mass postings celebrating Philip Roth include a podcast of the National Book Critics Circle collaboration with the Center for Fiction in celebration of Philip Roth, a range of  Roth reviews, a 50-minute video of Roth reading from his NBCC-award winning autobiography, Patrimony, and, today,  his acceptance speech when he won the National Book Critics Circle fiction award for The Counterlife in 1988. Roth was unable to attend the National Book Critics Circle award ceremony on April 1, 1988 to accept the award. He sent a tape recording of his speech, which was played at the ceremony. It has been an inspiration to writers ever since:

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. I accept this predicament with the appropriate chagrin.

You begin with the raw material, the facts, what appear in the morning light to be potentially exploitable facts. One by one you turn them over in your mind. This can take days, it can take years. The mind conducts the examination at its own pace—are these facts really any good?—and one day turns the facts over to the imagination. The imagination gets to work. It is not a pleasant sight. The imagination is pitiless, brutal and cruel. It lacks common decency, discretion, manners, loyalty—yes, it lacks even compassion. The imagination has a conscience all its own; you wouldn’t want it as a friend.

The butcher, imagination, wastes no times with niceties: it clubs the fact over the head, quickly it slits the throat, and then with its bare hands, it pulls forth the guts. Soon the guts of facts are everywhere, the imagination is simply wading through them. By the time the imagination is finished with a fact, believe me, it bears not resemblance to a fact. The imagination then turns a dripping mass of eviscerated factuality back to the mind. But the mind (if it is a mind) is no less brutal than the imagination and it is not impressed. It finds that the facts have been badly butchered. It sends down for fresh raw material new facts. And all this goes on day in and a=day out, though there are days of course, when the savagery gets to be too much even for them and, overcome with self-loathing, even mind and imagination haven’t the heart to continue. And then, of course, there are those days when they believe they are insufficiently savage, that for all the vaunted bloody-mindedness of mind and imagination, they are far too dainty, too respectful of the facts, and they collapse on the job out of humiliation. Not very reliable these two manic-depressives, but indispensable nonetheless, and so you wait and wait for them to come to their senses.

Eventually, there is a novel. Readers appear. Among them are those who detest the severity of the mind and the violence of the imagination, hate everything about them, really. These readers are happy only with the facts—stupid as the little facts are all by themselves—and so they strip away the imagination and the mind of the novel to get to its factual basis. Others, however, with a secret, shameful but well-developed hunger for the brutality, cruelty and pitilessness of the imagination and mind, sit back and, under the guides of participating in a culturally uplifting activity, they cannibalize the flesh of fiction. To be sure, there cannot be anywhere, in all the realms of contemplation, anything so disgusting as the taste of a rotten book. But when it tastes good, gamey and good, there’s nothing like it, is there? Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing.