Reading Philip Roth’s THE GHOST WRITER

One characteristic of literary fiction is that you read these books because they’re critically acclaimed and you often have no clue what they’re about. Like right now I’m reading the first of Roth’s Zuckerman novels, The Ghost Writer, and I couldn’t tell you what kind of book it is or what the plot’s going to be. It’s about a young writer, twenty-three years old, who’s just published his first few stories. He finagles his way into an evening hanging out with his idol, E.I. Lonoff, and they sit around in Lonoff’s house in New England, shooting the shit. But there’s some weird stuff happening between Lonoff and his wife and one of his students.

Mostly, though, you wonder: why is this famously reclusive writer hanging out with this young man? What is his angle? What does he have to gain?

That’s the thing people often don’t realize about literary fiction: there is a suspense element to every single book. I don’t care whether it’s Mrs. Dalloway (What will happen to Severus? What will happen at Clarissa’s party? What will happen when she meets Walsh?) or Ulysses (What will happen when Bloom finally comes face to face with his wife?) or what–there is always a suspense element. Oftentimes, literary fictions, when well done, are more suspenseful than genre fictions, because in a literary novel, you genuinely don’t know what is going to happen. Like I can honestly say that I have no idea how this book will end, and I am riveted.