Amid the literary mourning of Philip Roth this week, the expected grief and reverence was accompanied by a subtle note of defense.
In Slate, we have, “To read him is to risk being offended.” The Guardian goes with, “Roth declined to fit himself into predictable categories, liberal or otherwise.” In The New Yorker, Zadie Smith devotes much of her eulogy to such material, saying Roth “never confused [fiction] with other things made of words, like statements of social justice or personal rectitude,” concluding that fiction “is a medium that must always allow itself, as those other forms often can’t, the possibility of expressing intimate and inconvenient truths.”
Readers familiar with Roth may guess that behind all these polite phrases is the accusation of misogyny that dogged Roth throughout his career.
At the root of the accusation is Roth’s gleefully lascivious objectification of women in his novels. In Portnoy’s Complaint, an attempted rape is treated as slapstick comedy; in The Breast, a man tragicomically turns into a breast from longing for them too much. Women’s bodies are the eternal punch line. A glimpse of female skin turns male characters into bumbling, venal clowns, no longer responsible for what they do.
This sex-positive sexism is often still glibly excused by Roth’s fans. In a 2013 article in New York Magazine, in which 30 writers voted him the greatest American novelist, the question “Is Roth a misogynist?” was pooh-poohed memorably by Keith Gessen. “If you hated women, why would you spend all your time thinking about fucking them?” he asked. Answering the same initial question, Rosecrans Baldwin defended Roth with, “Well, he’s no Updike” ― offering the familiar argument that prejudice should be graded on a curve. And truly, on a scale from zero to Norman Mailer, Roth is only a five.
But Roth’s misogyny should be taken seriously because it’s still only a five; because it’s still possible for it to be defended, even to pass unremarked. For many 21st-century Americans, it’s still not misogyny at all but the normal psychology of the male. Yet it often involves something darker than an adolescent sniggering about boobs.
Its more hateful elements emerge most clearly in Roth’s great political novels, American Pastoral and The Human Stain. American Pastoral is the story of Swede Levov, a simple, decent man whose beloved teenaged daughter becomes a radical 1960s terrorist who commits several bombings, killing four people. In his baffled grief, Levov is taunted by a female confederate of his daughter’s who stridently berates him as a capitalist pig for a dozen pages, then tries to seduce him with corny porno lines like, “I bet you’ve got yourself quite a pillar in there ... the pillar of society.” When he resists, she shows him her vagina, and “rolling the labia lips outward with her fingers, [exposes] to him the membranous tissue veined and mottled and waxy with the moist tulip sheen of flayed flesh.” His later encounter with his daughter is also full of disgust for her unwashed female body, with its “smell of everything organic breaking down. It is the smell of no coherence.” Meanwhile, Levov’s wife is as inconsolable as he is ― until she gets a facelift and uses it to attract a seedy lover.
“I would insist we stop treating [Roth's] misogyny as a dirty secret, much less a disputed theory.”
In The Human Stain, another honorable hero, the professor Coleman Silk, loses his job when his innocent use of the word “spooks” is misinterpreted as racist — not only unfair but ironic, since he’s secretly a black man passing as a Jew. He then starts a relationship that is “an unearthly paradise of earthbound lust” with an illiterate 34-year-old cleaning woman, only again to be attacked by liberal scolds who assume he is exploiting her. His most determined persecutor is the leftist academic Delphine Roux, whose secret motives aren’t even political; rather, “Something about him always led her back to her childhood and the precocious child’s fear that she is being seen through; also to the precocious child’s fear that she is not being seen enough.” Furthermore, she has sexual fantasies about the septuagenarian Silk, who reminds her of “the one professor whom she’d been unable to resist” — all the more upsetting since, despite being young and beautiful, she’s too much of a radical harpy to attract a man. If this is the Great American Novel, it is one today’s alt-right could whole-heartedly embrace.
This is not to say that Roth personally was alt-right or even conservative. Before his death from congestive heart failure on Tuesday, he made no secret of his contempt for Donald Trump, was instinctively liberal in most respects, and thought of himself as a Roosevelt Democrat. Yet his political novels have a nagging MAGA aftertaste. Successful, decent, hardworking men, who in the time of our fathers would have been appreciated, are mindlessly destroyed by modern women as the embodiments of a degenerate society. It’s a sentiment familiar from countless tweets and subreddits, internet comment sections, even New York Times profiles of rural white voters. Reading these novels in 2018, one half expects the male protagonist to angrily comment, “This is why people voted for Trump.”
Still, while these books can sound cloddish in a brief description, Roth fills them with remarkable beauty, intelligence and powerfully evoked emotion. Even the trite elements are exalted by mastery and intense thoughtfulness. These are clearly not novels that can only be enjoyed by misogynists ― Zadie Smith is not a misogynist ― and I’m far from believing they should be discarded or suppressed.
But I would insist we stop treating their misogyny as a dirty secret, much less a disputed theory. In fact, the misogyny in his works is one of the ways Roth most truly portrayed the American soul. And his insights may be crucially useful to us in 2018 ― even if that misogyny, which Roth treats so intimately, which deforms his narratives again and again, which nags and disrupts and jars and confuses, is absolutely his own. One of the many reasons he’s worth reading is that it’s also ours.