Philip Roth is first and foremost a consummate storyteller. Whether the genre is short fiction, novel, or autobiography, and whether the subject matter is serious, comic, or somewhere in between, Roth’s great narrative power entertains readers. This ability to spellbind his audience stems from Roth’s seemingly effortless command of the English language and his remarkable agility of mind as he maintains a rapid pace of invention, action, and ideas. These talents have been recognized by numerous critics. In addition to his 1959 National Book Award for Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories, Roth has won the Paris Review’s Aga Khan Award (1958) for “Epstein,” a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant (1959), a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (1959), the Daroff Award, offered by the Jewish Book Council of America (1960; also for Goodbye, Columbus and Five Other Stories), and an O. Henry second-prize award (1960) for “Defender of the Faith.” He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1969. Both The Counterlife (1986) and Patrimony: A True Story (1991) won the National Book Critics Circle Award (1987 and 1992, respectively), and in 1991 Roth was awarded the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature. Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993) won the PEN/Faulkner Award, Sabbath’s Theater (1995) won the National Book Award, and American Pastoral (1997) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. He has been awarded honorary doctorates by Dartmouth College, Brandeis University, Columbia University, Rutgers University, and other universities.
Roth has also been heavily criticized over the years. Critics accuse him of wasting his talent on a limited, self-absorbed vision of the world, having a sexist attitude toward women, portraying Jews in an unflattering light, and being needlessly pessimistic. While these charges may or may not have validity, no one doubts Roth’s skills as a wordsmith. Moreover, the continuing appeal of Roth’s work indicates that his apparent aimlessness and moral anguish reflect deeply felt trends in contemporary life.