Among the many tributes following the death of American author Philip Roth earlier this month – including praise for his literary genius and his mentorship – one theme kept coming up from women: misogyny.
In published essays, blogs, social media and private correspondence, many women – readers, authors, critics, professors – talked about the way reading Roth made them feel: diminished, undesirable, invisible, angry. Some felt his portrayal of women degraded his writing. For example, in an op-ed in the New York Times, novelist Dara Horn saw it as part of a general flattening of character, a literary narcissism that worked against literary greatness. Others – such as Brett Kaplan, author of the 2015 book Jewish Anxiety and the Novels of Philip Roth – struggled with the sense of him as both a misogynist and a genius.
There were some pointed defences of Roth, largely from his male readers: that his towering brilliance was the only barometer by which to measure him; that his enduring friendships with former girlfriends proves he was no misogynist; and that his supposed misogyny was as false a reading as his putative anti-Semitism.
I confess that I am among those women readers who both admire Roth’s literary greatness and often feel put off by the female characters in his novels. When I first encountered Roth’s novels as a young reader, I could not read them without feeling as though they were a negative commentary on my own being – much as the 20th-century Jewish-American literary critic, Irving Howe, saw himself diminished by the poet T.S. Eliot’s negative references to Jews, even as he admired Eliot’s brilliance. The portrayal of female characters, particularly Jewish ones, was one way that Roth negotiated his critique of (Jewish) bourgeois values, of the unexamined life, of facile political and cultural views, of the human condition. Much as Roth may have drawn on real women to create them, they were not real women – any more than his men were real – but literary constructions. They were threads, if you will, woven into the tapestry of his novels. They were part of the fabric of his creativity.
I met Roth when I was a junior professor teaching literature and developing a program in Jewish studies at an American university. At that time, Roth rarely accepted speaking invitations. But one of my colleagues called in some favours and eventually persuaded him to give a public reading of his most recent book on our campus, to help us inaugurate the new Jewish studies program. By then, Roth had outgrown his enfant terrible phase, but he was not yet an éminence grise. Much to the chagrin of the senior (male) colleague who had tendered the invitation to Roth, the author decided that I was to be his host and companion for his visit. We walked the campus together, dined together and enjoyed meandering conversations about literature, culture and human rights. I was struck by the intelligence and energy that he radiated, as well as his straightforward talk. I remember that we argued a bit – largely about contemporary women writers. The only one whose talent he admitted was Cynthia Ozick. As for the rest, he told me, shaking his head, that I was “taken in” by them, fooled by their seductive but shallow writing. I wondered whether he was discomfited by reading male characters through women’s eyes.
The Roth misogyny debate opens up a larger question about genius and morality. What do we make of literary genius – really, any kind of genius – that encompasses attitudes we find objectionable, even immoral? The challenge is to not let our admiration of brilliance override our indignation, or to let our indignation override our appreciation of genius – but to acknowledge both. Great literature comes out of the complexity of being, not its impossible perfection.