Philip Roth, who died on May 22 at 85, has long been castigated by feminists for sexism, but his case represents a twist on what has, in the MeToo, era become a familiar scenario. The careers of the likes of Morgan Freeman, Garrison Keillor, (or more seriously Bill Cosby) have been seriously damaged by their alleged hurtful behavior toward women. Their art itself is widely considered blameless, worthy of its reputation, but is being suppressed in some cases because of its association with the artists.
On the other hand it is Roth’s writing itself–often celebrated as Nobel Prize-worthy, even if he never actually got it–that numerous women have objected to. The question is: should Roth the man be tainted by association with the badboy behavior of his male characters?
Like most writers considered “great”, an adjective used in most obituaries, Roth was tremendously ambitious, telling compelling stories about many of the most important themes of our time: anti-semitism and fascism of the 1930s and 40s, radicalism of the 1960s, racism. But certainly one of the subjects most associated with Roth is the sexual life of men. It is his depiction of this part of life that has gotten him the label, in some quarters, of a sexist for whom women function mostly as sex objects. Roth, according to one critic, “is never inside the heads of his females. . .” (Ellen Sofie Lauritzen in TPM, March 2015)
Roth frequently insisted in interviews, this is fiction, these are imagined characters. Don’t confuse the author with his creations. And any sophisticated view of the art form would agree. But the fact is that you can’t read Roth without getting the sense that the plight of his male characters (often men of Roth’s age, sometimes writers) has a lot in common with that of their author. Yes, they are imagined characters, but Roth (like most men) clearly knows and appreciates that male, hetero terrain well from personal experience. Imagination doesn’t work in a vacuum.
(The actress Claire Bloom wrote a very unflattering review of her marriage to Roth, but that’s another matter.)
Great art is often defined by its transcendent universality. But nothing in Roth’s prolific life’s work suggests that he was less stuck in his biological gender than most men.
In an early novella, “The Breast,” Roth has his character Kepesh wake up one day to find himself being transformed into a giant female breast. Thus does Roth use imagination of this Kafkaesque grotesquerie as a way, it would seem, of transcending the typical male fetish. But in fact the whole story is written from the energy of that fetish. As the female critic quoted above says, he doesn’t seem interested in that story in being “inside the head” of an actual woman on the subject of that body part that so energizes most men. And there is no relief for Kepesh: even when he actually becomes the fetish he continues to lust after it.
So when it comes to gender, if he’s in the same boat as most men, wherein lies Roth’s greatness? Not in transcending his gender but in bringing to bear on a situation he and his characters share his compelling and inimitable voice, humor, irony, intelligence; his humanity, if thoroughly a male version.
I suppose, from a woman’s point of view, that might be seen as giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
No, Roth is not universal , but it’s an interesting question whether there are any writers, male or female, capable ot genuine transcendence of their gender.
I recommend his books of male aging, written in his 70s in an amazing late outpouring, as good company for aging men–and women too, insofar as they are interested in getting inside the heads of aging men