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“Roth Unbound”: The author as literary hero, despite a checkered past

Claudia Roth Pierpont’s "Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books" marks the beginning of Philip Roth’s attempt to curate his legacy.  A “hybrid” that deviates from the standard form of critical biography by virtue of the fact that Roth sat down with Pierpont for what appears to be months of conversations about every facet of his life and work, Pierpont’s book is the first on Roth to appear since his announced retirement last year, and will no doubt profoundly affect the man’s reputation going forward.

In "Exit Ghost," Roth warned of literary biographers and their “dirt-snooping calling itself research [that] is just about the lowest of literary rackets,” and it’s clear that his extensive work with Pierpont is part of his attempt to preempt the rough treatment that his controversial career is likely to attract from future biographers. (The other part is his current cooperation with Blake Bailey on a full-fledged biography.) Almost from the beginning, Roth has been a self-canonizer. His commentary on his own fiction — collected in "Reading Myself and Others" but also embedded in books like "My Life As A Man," "The Facts," and the Zuckerman books -- has been so rigorously incisive that it can’t help but shape the way we read him, and his restless reshuffling of his collected works into trilogies and tetralogies, into “Zuckerman books” or “Roth books,” betrays an artist deeply invested in structuring readers’ responses to his oeuvre. Not since Henry James — who late in life gathered his entire corpus into the sometimes heavily rewritten New York Edition, each of its 20 volumes introduced by a long preface -- has there been an American writer so hands-on concerned with how history will receive him.

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