‘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.