Predictably, inevitably, the great novelist Philip Roth is now receiving the full Updike treatment. He has become ‘problematic’. His novels should ‘recontextualised’. He is on the wrong side of Me Too.
It has been a few years now since that tide turned for John Updike. One moment he was a much-loved adornment of the literary scene, a clear-eyed celebrant of middle America, the next he was beyond the pale – an old-fashioned woman-hater whose novels reeked of his own misogyny.
‘Most of the literary readers I know personally are under 40, and a fair number are female,‘ said David Foster Wallace back in 1999,
‘…and none of them are big admirers of the post-war Great Male Narcissists. But it’s Updike in particular they seem to hate. And not merely his books, for some reason. Mention the poor man himself and you have to jump back: “Just a penis with a thesaurus”.
Today it is Roth’s turn. There was some mild chuntering about his life and work when he died in 2018 but, now with the publication of an official biography by Blake Bailey and a memoir by Ira Nadel, Roth is well and truly in the dock.
A Sunday Times news piece reported that ‘sordid behaviour’ of his life, revealed in the new books, could cause him to ‘fall foul of increasingly censorious modern standards.’ Roth was ‘rolling around in his id like a pig in shit’ was the view of an author called Meg Elison. According to another, Sandra Newman, we should be ‘recontextualising’ Roth’s novels.
‘Looked at from the point of today, the books are on the wrong side of Me Too… (Misogyny) is at the centre of his work. I think he was saying things he believed.’
These are revealingly weird statements. No one who truly understands how fiction works would complain – or even think – about a novelist ‘saying things he believed’. A novel is an exploration, not an argument. As for being ‘on the wrong side of Me Too’, what does that actually mean? That a cultural wall exists beyond which any man guilty of what right-minded people decide is ‘sordid behaviour’ should be kept? That the words of these fiends should only be read with socially sanctioned disapproval?
It’s worth pausing to consider the nature of what the Sunday Times describes as Roth’s ‘depravity’. What are these horrors? He liked sex. He had affairs. He chatted up people in lifts. He liked women who were younger than him. He went to brothels. He behaved meanly towards the two women he married. He once made a pass at a friend of his wife Claire Bloom’s daughter and later, unwisely, made a joke about it. (‘What the point of having a pretty girl in the house if you don’t fuck her’).
He was, in other words, a randy bastard. And that, for many concerned observers like Sandra Newman, is enough to put him beside Harvey Weinstein, Jimmy Savile, Jeffrey Epstein and other monsters of our time. The fact that he was not a rapist or paedophile seems to be supremely irrelevant. He was a male, behaving badly and then writing about it – that puts him beyond the wall.
Among the many blurred lines in this debate is the one between writing and life. It is not entirely clear what is more unforgivable in Roth’s case – his own sexual life or the way he wrote about it. It is certainly true that he deployed, pushed and teased out his intimate experiences and feelings in his fiction – that’s what serious novelists do. The helpless lust men feel for women propels the comedy and the agony of many of novels down the decades from Portnoy’s Complaint to Sabbath’s Theater.
He compounded this sin in the eyes of his critics by taking a less than respectful line towards the new feminist orthodoxy. His notes for The Human Stain include the words:
‘Very upset and can’t understand it … Hysterical fear of the dick… The Great Purity Binge.’
Undeniably, reading the novels of Philip Roth can often be a rough, eye-watering ride for the reader. That’s partly what makes them so great and it was entirely his intention. ‘To let the the repellent in’ was his watchword. In an emphatic, upper-case memo to himself, he once wrote:
‘DO NOT JUDGE IT. DO NOT TRY TO UNDERSTAND IT. DO NOT CENSOR IT.’
His writing always came first. One ex-lover Janet Hobhouse wrote about this in the early 1980s in her hugely under-rated novel The Furies, in which the central character Jack is clearly based on Roth:
‘I was also in large part seduced by the dullest thing about him, which was how he actually lived, the monkish habits of his solitude, the grim, even depressive minimalism of his life.
I admired his fasting. I admired his stony separateness and self-sufficiency. I admired the smallness of his needs, the steadiness of his routines: his exercise weights, his evening runs, his early nights. All the symptoms of his current loneliness I read as choices, heroic and exemplary. I admired the way he organised his existence around the two pages a day he set himself to write, the way he kept out intruders and had an answering machine to protect him, to take his messages like a psychiatrist’s in August… I admired the sparseness of his living arrangements, the just so and no more of his furnishings, the blandness of what he had on his walls.’
In his fiction Roth showed us how ludicrous, and how ghastly, men can be. His characters were often, as he put in an interview,
‘… men responsive to the insistent call of sexual pleasure, beset by shameful desires and the undauntedness of obsessive lusts, beguiled even by the lure of the taboo’.
If novelists are not permitted to do that, who can? To banish male or female writers into the outer, out-of-print darkness of the ‘problematic’ on the grounds that we disapprove of the people and behaviour they are writing about is cowardly. Worse, it leaves the field of fiction to these nice, adaptable inoffensive writers with whom everyone can agree – second-raters, in other words.
That really matters. If a generation of new readers are encouraged to recoil from the work of Philip Roth, out of fear of catching inappropriateness, they will not only be deprived of one of the great writers of twentieth century but they will also understand less well the world in which they live. If awkward, brilliant writers exploring the way men feel – Roth, DH Lawrence, Hemingway, Updike – are now deemed to be unacceptable out of a woolly sense that they are not quite as nice as we would like, then our world will be less empathetic, more generally stupid, than it is already.
And what of writers? If right now we have a new Philip Roth among us, would he dare to write his Portnoy’s Complaint? Or would he quickly conclude that he would committing career suicide by putting himself on the wrong side of Me Too? Would a publisher take him on? Would critics review the novel on its own merits rather than parading their own virtuous disapproval?
Roth, of course, saw all this coming. In 2014, he wrote:
‘It is my comic fate to be the writer these traducers have decided I am not. They practice a rather commonplace form of social control: You are not what you think you are. You are what we think you are. You are what we choose for you to be. Well, welcome to the subjective human race. The imposition of a cause’s idea of reality on the writer’s idea of reality can only mistakenly be called “reading.” And in the case at hand, it is not necessarily a harmless amusement. In some quarters, “misogynist” is now a word used almost as laxly as was “Communist” by the McCarthyite right in the 1950s — and for very like the same purpose.’
Someone in the Sunday Times piece likened the destruction of Roth’s reputation to the tearing down of the statues of old colonialist – a brave, enlightened break with the intolerant past. What gormless idiocy that is. One day, these attitudes will be viewed by future generations rather in the way that we laugh at the sex-obsessed primness of the Victorians.
Roth was right in his note of two decades ago. The Great Purity Binge is upon us.