Tuesday, March 1, 2011

"The imagination has a conscience all its own": Philip Roth on Fact and Fiction

The Center for Fiction, which in my un-objective opinion is becoming one of the most happening literary hangouts in New York, had one of its best events yet last week--an evening with and about Philip Roth.  The National Book Critics circle put it together, and their printed program for the event included some wonderful excerpts from reviews of Roth's work over the years (Saul Bellow thought the "fault" of Goodbye, Columbus was its sophistication). But the best excerpt was from Roth himself, accepting the NBCC fiction award for The Counterlife in 1988. I have never read a better statement of how novelists treat life experience, or history:
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 goes 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 time 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 no resemblance to a fact. The imagination then turns a dripping mass of eviscerated factuality back to the mind. The mind (if it is a mind) is no less brutal than the imagination and it is not impressed. It finds that that the fact has been badly butchered. It sends down for fresh raw material, new facts. And all this goes on day in and 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.
By the way, if you are a fiction lover, the Center for Fiction's website should be a regular stop for you. Recently revamped, it posts fantastic new content all the time, including original stories from leading authors, interviews and videos, book recommendations, and lots more. And if you are a fiction lover in the New York City area, the Center itself, on 47th Street right near Grand Central, should be a regular stop too. It has an unmatched circulating library of 85,000 books, including novels you'll find nowhere else, and literary programming second to nobody in the city. Can you think of anywhere else in town where you might hear Philip Roth read--or see him chatting with Zadie Smith and Nathan Englander?

(photo of Philip Roth © Nancy Crampton)