Philip Roth and the society of daft lawyers

A great novelist who knows when to call it a day, and the shameful, racism-obsessed lawyers who don't.

Hero: Philip Roth

The end.

Few novelists have managed to provide their own writing lives with a full stop. Too often, it ceases to be their story to tell. There always seems to be something knocking around after their death, an unfinished novel or a half-cut manuscript to be scribbled into completion at another’s hand, the author’s authority undermined in posterity.

But Philip Roth, a contemporary writer who, for once, actually deserves the veneration which has long come his way, has managed to do just that. He has put an end to his own literary career; he has silenced his calling. ‘I have dedicated my life to the novel’, he told the French magazine Les Inrocks recently. ‘I studied, I taught, I wrote and I read. With the exclusion of almost everything else. Enough is enough! I no longer feel this fanaticism to write that I have experienced in my life.’ And so that is that. Nemesis, published in 2010, is the author’s very own end.

Is Roth a great novelist? Yeah, I would say so. From his debut collection, Goodbye, Columbus, published in 1959, to Sabbath’s Theatre, which won the National Book Award in 1995, Roth’s fiction was playful, ironising and gloriously self-conscious. And the prose itself, elegantly distended in typically long, rich sentences, was something to be devoured. But in many ways, it is that great American trilogy of novels written in the late 1990s - American Pastoral, I Married A Communist and The Human Stain - which sets the seal on Roth’s literary achievement. For in these epic elegies, these rages against the dying light of Roth’s idea of America - its liberalism, its self-making, its hope - he captures something of the truth of our collective historical moment, while simultaneously denouncing its retrograde tendencies.

And now, this most devoted of writers, whose all-encompassing commitment to his literary craft was literally writ large in American Pastoral‘s infamously intricate, pages-long description of the craft of glove-making, has written himself off. The weight of the decision shouldn’t be underestimated. Roth’s life was monkish in its writerly seclusion, his dedication all-consuming. And now he has chosen to go beyond it. Yet this existential moment of Roth’s career shouldn’t perhaps surprise us. After all, this is the creator of The Human Stain‘s central protagonist, Coleman Silk, the light-skinned black man who decided to become a Jew, who chose ‘to become a new being’. And so, in a heroic, self-determining coda to his own literary life, Roth has decided at the last to become a new being, too: Roth the Retired.

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But there’s more. ‘I don’t think a new book will change what I’ve already done’, he said. ‘And if I write a new book it will probably be a failure. Who needs to read one more mediocre book?’ Indeed. It is a lesson the likes of Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and every other once-feted, now fateful chap-lit-hack would do well to heed.

So here’s to Roth: a literary hero who really has done it his way.

Zero: Peter Herbert

‘Who on earth is Peter Herbert?’ A year ago, that would have been most people’s response. Not that the answer, ‘he’s the chair of the Society of Black Lawyers’, would have provided much in the way of illumination. ‘What in daft names is the Society of Black Lawyers - is it a 1970s American TV show?’ would probably have been the next question. To which you could have responded in serious tones: the SBL is a campaign group founded in 1969 to combat racial discrimination within the legal profession and to fight for equality of opportunity and equal access to justice for all ethnic minorities.

You wouldn’t have to do this anymore, of course. Thanks to Herbert, who seems to have been on a one-man mission to raise the SBL’s media profile, everyone now knows exactly what he and his organisation are all about. They are dedicated to hyping up football as a cesspit of racism; they are waging a lawyer-led war on fascist footballers and their anti-Semitic fans; they are letting civilised light in upon football’s darkness. They are, in short, straight-faced, bollocks-talking, moral-panic mongers.

It’s possible to almost admire Herbert and the SBL for the assiduousness with which they pore over Sky Sports. In almost every game they find a suitable opportunity for legal intervention. They pressed for the involvement of the Crown Prosecution Service when Liverpool’s Luis Suarez said ‘negrito’ to Manchester United’s Patrice Evra; they pressed for the involvement of the Crown Prosecution Service when Chelsea’s John Terry talked about QPR’s Anton Ferdinand behind his back; they pressed for the involvement of the Crown Prosecution Service when they found out that Tottenham Hotspur fans describe themselves as the Yid Army (as they have done for decades); and they even pressed for the involvement of the Crown Prosecution Service when, as it turned out, no one heard Mark Clattenburg call a Chelsea player a ‘monkey’, albeit even a cheeky one. The SBL’s attention-seeking is near legendary. It has become a shameless factory of official anti-racism incidents, churning them out using the modern legal machinery of ‘offence’ and ‘unwitting racism’, and attempting to criminalise players and fans alike in the process. 

Admittedly, when it was founded, the SBL’s objectives had purchase. Fighting racial discrimination within both the legal system and the legal profession was a fight worth having, given the then existence of state-fostered racism. But it seems that recently the SBL has suffered some sort of existential crisis and, with Herbert at the helm, has gone in search of a reason to continue existing. And it is that search that has led them to lend a black face to the state’s war on the type of people who watch football. So thanks in part to Herbert and the SBL, the ‘slum people’, as The Sunday Times described football fans in 1985, have now become the racists in their replica kits. Shameful.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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