The Nobel and Phillip Roth

A few weeks ago, Adam Kirsch at Slate said this,

Unless and until Roth gets the Nobel Prize, there’s no reason for Americans to pay attention to any insults from the Swedes.

Yes, and Ultimate Frisbee is a real sport.

For baby boomers, reading Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint must have been exciting. Here we have a narrator talking about fucking as a form of conquest in a direct way that hadn’t been done before. And the book still reads very funny in parts. But even his later books like American Pastoral and The Human Stain have the same major flaw as Portnoy.

Reading Phillip Roth is like looking at a statue of a human being carved with the precision and skill of a Bernini except that one leg is cut off, so the statue can’t stand erect. What there is in the work displays immense skill, attention to detail, and even some human warmth. But you can’t get around the fact that the statue itself cannot stand, when it clearly should.

What do I mean by this?

Collectively, Roth’s novels resemble a carnival of intentionally crippled works. For all of Roth’s skills of observation and ability to deeply explore a characters’ motivations and actions, he only uses his talents for male characters and abandons those talents when it comes to female characters. A few flat female characters here and there throughout his career would not be so bad. But there is not a coherent believable female character in all of his fiction.

Were Roth writing in the 17th century this would be excusable. Women couldn’t vote, own land, or attend school. (Read Virginia Woolf’s essay Shakespeare’s Sister for a primer on this.) Of course, that didn’t stop Shakespeare himself from creating memorable, believable, women characters.

This is not an old criticism of Roth. As recently as last month, Vivian Gornick, in a long informative essay in Harper’s said,

The misogyny in Roth’s work seemed less and less a function of character, and more and more an indication of the author’s own swamped being. In Portnoy the reader could believe that the women are monstrous because Portnoy experiences them as monstrous. In all the books that followed over the next thirty years, the women are monstrous because for Philip Roth women are monstrous.

But that so many literature and cultural critics still make excuses for him in the mainstream media says more about the state of U.S. criticism than it does about the state of U.S. literature. That writers like Kirsch over at Slate believe that, now, in the 21st century that such an incomplete writer as Philip Roth deserves the Nobel Prize is a display of willful ignorance on par with Roth’s own willful ignorance.

So the question is, “What do we expect of our writers in this day and age? The ones we deem “literary,” the ones who proclaim to be writing for all time and not just the present?” Do we let them ignore half the human race? Or do we call bullshit as we see it?

Well, I call bullshit.


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