Philip Roth is an American novelist, but his career has been pocked with controversy — the main argument against his books is that there is a concentrated stream of misogyny that runs throughout his canon — he’s also been labeled a “self-loathing Jew” — but that’s a topic for another article. The current, ongoing, ding on Philip Roth, as early as yesterday, is that he still hates women, even at age 78.
The latest outrage against Roth happened Wednesday when one of the judges for the Man Booker International Prize leapt from her platform to punish the Pulitzer Prize winner:
Calling him the “most decorated living American writer,” a panel named Philip Roth the winner of the Man Booker International Prize on Wednesday, an honor awarded every two years to an author for extraordinary work in fiction.
But it was one of the judges, Carmen Callil, who stole the headlines from Mr. Roth when she stormily withdrew from the panel in protest over its 2-to-1 decision on the winner.
Ms. Callil, the founder of the feminist publishing house Virago, told The Guardian that Mr. Roth “goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every book,” adding, “I don’t rate him as a writer at all.” She also wondered aloud if, “in 20 years’ time, will anyone read him?” (The publishers who keep his books from the 1960s and ’70s in print might have an answer.)
If Roth really hates women, and if he proves it on the page — does that matter?
Do we punish artistic expression we don’t like even if it is successful in the marketplace?
Since the 1970s, he — along with the since-deceased Saul Bellow and John Updike — has routinely been labelled a misogynist by feminists. In the 1990s they seemed to have a point, when his former wife Claire Bloom published her autobiography Leaving the Doll’s House. According to the book, Roth’s demands in the divorce settlement included $150 an hour for the time they’d spent discussing her scripts. He also wanted $62 billion for her failure to honour their pre-nup. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that Roth’s first novel after her revelations was I Married a Communist, in which a mentally unstable actress publishes a book telling lies about her ex-husband.
And yet, as Roth has explained many times, it’s no part of the writer’s brief to be nice. To denounce him for dodgy sexual politics, he suggests, is to miss the point so completely as to be “numb to fiction.” His characters may not always treat — or think about — women the way that current pieties demand. But the inconvenient fact is that neither do many men in real life, which is what Roth is out to explore as honestly and often mercilessly as he can.
I am reminded of the time when I was a freshman college student doing voluntary work in the English Department. Most of the faculty were male and all of the office staff were female. There was one particular department professor star who, the whisper campaign against him in the office claimed, was a “woman hater.” The clerical staff would do the bare minimum of their jobs for him, but they wouldn’t do him any favors or smile at him or allow him to speak condescendingly to him. As far as I could divine in my years as an English major, he never seemed to care about their campaign against him and I don’t think he was even aware of their concentrated cold shoulders. Is the silent treatment worth the effort if the tree falling in the forest is unaware of the sound it does or does not make?
My experience with that professor, as a male undergraduate, was that he spoke condescendingly to everyone around him. He was impossible. He never let you finish a sentence. He knew you were dumber than you knew and he clearly felt sorry for you that you didn’t know how stupid you were. He’d read everything ever published at least twice — and I’m not exaggerating — he really did read every book and scholarly journal published and memorized them and then quoted them in every spoken interaction. He remembered more information than the university library had stored in its voluminous collection.
That professor was clearly a genius, but he was not a genuine human being because he could barely control his contempt for everyone around him. He was the living example of the forced smile. He world was scholarly writing. The rest of us could F-Off and Die and he’d be a happier man for the favor.
Did his bad behavior make him a misogynist, which he was, or a misanthrope — which is clearly his overarching legacy? Does it matter if he expressed gender hatred more obviously than he did his human hatred? Should we allow ourselves to be insulted because of something we cannot change or inhibit?
That professor recently died. It was reported in the local paper that he passed, in peace, at the hospital, with his wife at his side holding his hand and his daughter at his feet.
What do we make of The Philip Roth Misogyny? Do we write it off as artistic license? Or do we earn a grander view of the genuine man and take his slights to heart and make them our own because that, after all, is Philip Roth’s real intention?
If the books are good — and they are — then the award is well deserved.
That’s an interesting take, Gordon. So the personal life, or the prosaic prejudices on the page don’t matter?
The personal life — certainly not.
Prosaic prejudices — they still make for good reading.
Having read a couple of Roth novels I can attest to their humour and literary quality.
Philip Roth is a good friend of Howard Stein. I met Philip several times when I was a grad student at Columbia. He was always generous and kind to me and the other students he was teaching.