Peeking out mordantly from the start is Roth’s natural gift for comedy, which can’t help but rise to the surface even amid the seriousness. And Roth is a comedian, really, rather than a humorist or a satirist … Then there comes a last third, gathered here for the first time, called ‘Explanations,’ which is in many ways the most arresting and apropos part of the book. Roth’s great subject turns out to be, by his own account, patriotism—how to savor American history without sentimentalizing it, and how to claim an American identity without ceasing to inquire into how strangely identities are made.
A reader opening the book in expectation of an assortment of literary and social essays, in the manner of James Baldwin, John Updike or Gore Vidal, will be disappointed. In addition to the interviews, there is a scattering of brief memoirs and some appreciations, but Mr. Roth’s subject matter can be summed up as ‘My novels. And me.’ The sense of disappointment will not last long. Mr. Roth’s responses to interviewers are eloquent and free from inhibition … As well as being consistently intelligent and entertaining, Why Write? is a primary source.
'Attack' is the word that rises, three-dimensionally, from the text. It recurs often throughout Roth’s nonfiction, invoked to describe the various aggressions he has absorbed, his resentment toward his critics, and his assault on the blank page that faced him each morning ... The force of Roth’s attack, sustained for more than a half-century, is what made his retirement so startling. It is also the quality that, more than anything, sustains this volume ... But in these pages he rarely approaches the intimacy of his two short books of memoir ... Instead he is generally at great pains to depict his adult life as a dreary parade of professional monotony ... 'A writer needs his poisons,' Roth said in his Paris Review interview. 'The antidote to his poisons is often a book.' He published more than two dozen such books. Why Write? is not one of them. It more closely resembles an account of the poisons Roth was made to swallow and the symptoms they caused—the headaches, the convulsions, the bouts of delirium.