thoughts on Philip Roth

‘The work of a genius at full throttle’.

Generally, I hate blurbs like this on books and I can usually overlook them. But these lines, printed in eye-catching type on the bottom of my copy of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, keep coming back to me. And they don’t sit well. Despite his publishing success and the sheer breadth of his overall literary project, I am hesitant about granting Roth this label, mainly because I feel his work contains a fatal flaw.

He is a misogynistic writer and I find that this element of his work interferes with my appreciation of anything else he does. There is a difference between exposing social issues (a misogynistic character, for example) and colluding with them (a misogynistic narrator who is often not much more than a stand-in for Roth). Roth is hailed for his dissection of American life, and he does get into the nitty-gritty and often-unpleasant aspects of human behavior, something I usually applaud in literature, but I find that his portraits of male-female relationships are overwhelmingly caricatural. Yes, sex does come into the equation between men and women and their dealings with one another, but it isn’t the entire equation and it isn’t always such an ugly, angry, unbalanced equation.

I read an article about Roth over the weekend from The Guardian and it said this:

This perceived misogyny is seen in some circles as Roth’s Achilles’ heel, the ugly stain on his greatness. Like Bellow and Updike, he belongs to a generation of male authors whose coming of age predates the coming of modern feminism, and who share a tendency to create female characters who are either emasculaters or victims.

‘One must resist the urge to psychoanalyse,’ says Grant, ‘or to conflate Roth with his male creations, but the palpable sense of disgust towards the women characters has certainly intensified in these last great books. He has no problem with intellectual women, it’s their sexuality that he finds difficult. It’s deeply rooted, and almost medieval. But, it’s not a defect. It’s an element of who he is as a writer, and it does not for me diminish his greatness.’

At first, I found this description of Roth’s misogyny as an Achilles’ heel useful. An effective metaphor to remind me that perhaps I could separate the rest of his fictional gifts from this one, important flaw. And yet, I can’t. Imagine if Roth’s flaw ran in the direction of an incredibly powerful and compelling depiction of white supremacy or pedophilia. A writer with an obvious tendency toward inappropriate depictions of relationships between adults and children would not be considered a genius. And no one would say – it’s not a defect. It’s an element of who he is as a writer, and it does not for me diminish his greatness.

It does diminish his work for me. It impels me to dismiss a lot of what might be revelatory, because I become deeply suspicious of his capacity for insight, his ability to engage in objective critical exposure of other aspects of human nature.

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Michelle

Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

12 thoughts on “thoughts on Philip Roth”

  1. I read Roth’s The Plot Against America and loved it. But then I tried to read American Pastoral, supposedly a masterpiece, and boy I hated it. Got half way through and put it down for good. Even though I haven’t seen the misogyny for myself but I wouldn’t be surprised. One of the reasons I disliked American Pastoral was because it was so “male”. Lots of high school sports, back slapping bonhomie kind of baloney. I think it is probably a short jump from that to misogyny.

  2. Some things just don’t sit well. I rather expect the writer of the article in the Guardian was male…. Every reader has ethical sensibilities that are deal breakers when it comes to enjoying books. I can’t read novels where everything is caricaturial and absurd – although many readers love them – because I don’t like losing touch with reality that way. It’s okay – you may put the Roth down and step away! 🙂

  3. I’ve only read Plot Against America and there really weren’t any women in the book, but even though I’ve heard such good things about his other books I have been hesitant to pick them up because of his treatment of women. I have the same hesitation with Updike and Norman Mailer.

  4. Really interesting statement. I want to agree, but I haven’t read enough Roth. I’m not sure I would be so put off by Roth’s approach myself, being male, and probably having a greater, though perhaps unfortunate, tolerance. But there’s something that has kept me from reading Roth since Ghost Writer and joining the acclaim–I generally think of the problem as my own disinterest in reading fiction during the period from 95 to 05, roughly. And I’ve felt like I missed some great books by Rother that I should be catching catch up on, including American Pastoral and The Human Stain. But now you’ve got me wondering if I’ve had a longterm aversion to Roth’s work, and your reaction is smart and strong and well-stated and of course completely on target.

    …but aside from all that… I’m curious about how Human Stain stacks up on the emerging academic novel list. You mentioned you had read Straight Man. And that’s my segue to the recent kerfuffle somewhere about Russo’s portrayal of women, where he was accused of misogyny. Russo’s readers and supporters seem to have been outraged, mostly, and the distinction is clear when you compare Russo to Roth. I don’t know enough about either of them to do the topic justice, but the conflicts and problematic characterizations of women in Russo seem inconsequential and quite tame compared to the little I know of Roth. Perhaps the comparison makes your point even clearer.

  5. I see your point. I’m ambivalent towards Roth myself. But let me ask this: Since an enormity of books written before 1960 (and much later in some instances) were overtly racist, do we stamp them all, fine lit, classic mysteries, humor, all of it, as shameful?

  6. Yes. It’s been a long time since I read The Human Stain. There were passages in it that I greatly admired for their craft. But there were other things that made me roll my eyes. His misogyny–I totally agree with you. And there were other things as well that I think go along with that. Certain characters and plot devices were strained by stereotype. He was best in those passages that vividly but broadly painted a particular time, rather than individual people. I was never moved to read another of his.

  7. I don’t expect a narrative voice–whether or not it seems to be a stand in for the author–to be good. I’m dealing with this now as I read The Kindly Ones. The narrator in Jonathan Littell’s book is a monster of the fist order. Imagine Othello rewritten from the POV of Iago? … or Lear written by Edmond… but worse.

    Art doesn’t represent the Good (I know that you agree). So what then is the problem? Your complaint sounds to me, misplaced. That doesn’t mean it’s not real! Misplaced, not wrong. Not in your final judgment, but in identifying the problem as misogyny.

    When a book goes wrong, what matters is aesthetics. When a good and experienced reader like you finds yourself drawn in, made to feel complicit in a failed moral universe–not because you recognize that you are, complicit in the world outside the fiction, (as can happen)… complicit in some comparable way–but because you cannot fully engage with the book without feeling as though you are being invited to confirm, not merely understand or sympathize with, but confirm what is vile and hateful–then I think the problem is aesthetic, a failure of aesthetic distance.

    A distinction that matters–Mike raises an important question. What is it then about the misogyny in Roth’s novels that breaches the aesthetic borders, that draws the reader in as a kind of enabler of his misogyny? Is there such a fault? Or has the reaction to the narrator’s attitude and behavior perhaps overwhelmed the reading, created a situational blindness to aesthetic elements that might redeem both the novel and the reader’s sensibilities?

    It’s late… I’m tired.. I hope this makes some sense.

  8. Your comments and the Guardian quotes made me ponder some interesting points.

    “…portraits of male-female relationships are overwhelmingly caricatural.” Perhaps he has not had intimate relationships with women, and hence finds it impossible to accurately portray them in his works. Particularly after reading the later comments about locker room butt slapping, etc. “…no problem with intellectual women, it’s their sexuality that he finds difficult.”

    I tried writing dialog between drug addicts in a class and the teacher marked me down horribly because they were just caricatures. I opted not to go out and get experience for a re-write. 😉

    “…whose coming of age predates the coming of modern feminism, and who share a tendency to create female characters who are either emasculaters or victims.” Do you believe this is true? Is there a lack strong female characters from writers born before the 50s? That might be an interesting discussion. I don’t think Eowyn was emasculater, nor victim.

  9. Everyone has left the most thoughtful comments here – let me see if I can answer some of questions raised…

    Colleen – You are definitely not alone! In the guardian article it was even mentioned that Roth books are never sent to female reviewers.

    Thomas – I’m interested in the fact that you put American Pastoral down. Perhaps Roth’s problem is that he’s making too many caricatures?

    Litlove – I appreciate the permission 🙂 and I’d love to do just that, but now I think I’ll have to read all of him just to be sure what i’m talking about.

    Stefanie – I’ve only read Updike’s short stories and I’m curious if I would feel the same way about him as I do now about Roth.

    Zhiv – I realized after I left that comment on your site that I actually haven’t read Straight Man, only Empire Falls, but I have discussed Straight Man so much with my writing partner that I feel that i know it. However, I won’t venture a comment on it until I have read it. I don’t remember thinking the female characters were treated disrespectfully in Empire Falls…

    Mike and Jacob – your excellent questions made their way into my post for today!

    Lillian – I think I’m interested in doing a solid Roth read now, much to my frustration, but mainly because I want to better understand his project and determine what’s really bothering me about him.

    Bikkuri – I think strong female characters have always existed and mainly because real misogyny is actually a very rare issue – it’s an extreme. Sure, women got a raw deal for a few centuries but they were respected by many and continue to be so, which was reflected in literature.

  10. It does diminish his work for me. It impels me to dismiss a lot of what might be revelatory, because I become deeply suspicious of his capacity for insight, his ability to engage in objective critical exposure of other aspects of human nature.

    Perfectly put. I completely agree.

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