Saturday, March 16, 2013

If NY Mag Had Asked Me

So there was a bit of a noise recently after New York published this survey about the now (presumably complete) Roth oeuvre. Most of it had to do with how many women and men were included in the survey (take a guess), the probable impact of this on the answers to the question "Is Roth a misogynist?" and the unfortunate start of Keith Gessen's response to that question: "Did Roth hate women? What does that mean? If you hated women, why would you spend all your time thinking about fucking them?" Oh, and they asked James Franco. So there's that.

So New York didn't ask me, sadly. But I do feel somewhat uniquely qualified here. I've written about Roth quite a bit, and have read almost all his books, including the lesser-known non-fiction memoirs and essays. Even the one about baseball. And because, while I'm sure many people would think this only shows my "bias," I actually think having also spent a lot of time reading, writing and thinking about feminism, might put me in an interesting position to answer these questions.

So, if New York had asked me? Well, before getting to the misogyny thing, I would have been tempted to make fun of their questions. Is he the greatest living American novelist? Like, really, the greatest ever ever? And should he win the big prize? They might as well have asked, but is he awesome. . . or super awesome?  (A fawning biographer having an affair with her famous subject would make a pretty good Roth novel, actually). Can't we leave the obsessive ranking to the Ivy League admissions offices and the guys from High Fidelity? If you have to go there, I do have a soft spot for his consistency: it is pretty impressive that of the almost thirty books of his I've read, there's only one stinker in the bunch. (That would be the baseball one.) 

So, is he a misogynist?  Presumably a lot of people find the question stupid or insulting, but I'm with Zoe Heller here: it makes no sense to celebrate art's potential to offend, and then claim that anyone taking offense is deluded or stupid. Of course, to take offense is to risk sounding like one of the Puritans Roth rails against.  That's probably why Nell Freudenberger said "I don't like the way he writes about women, and I don't like the way I sound complaining about it." And it's true that while, as everyone rushed to point out, the fact that the characters spend a lot of time thinking about fucking women doesn't mean they aren't misogynist, it doesn't mean they are, either. Straight male sexuality is as good a theme as any, and, given that Roth isn't wrong about our Puritanism, there's a tendency to react negatively to that in a way that is kind of hollow. There's a Terry Gross interview with Roth when she asks him about his character's "excessive" sexuality, and he said that the concept of normality wasn't one any serious person has any business entertaining.

But I think a lot of readers who aren't Puritans are responding to something else. At times it's the Tom Wolfe-level satirical misses: a lot of The Human Stain is wonderful but as a satire of a female academic Delphine Roux could have been written by a National Review intern over his lunch break, and about Rita Cohen, the man-eating radical from American Pastoral, the less said the better.

More than that, though, I think the interesting question is the extent to which there's an imaginative sympathy extended, one which at least attempts to see all the characters as they see themselves. Not everyone has to be George Eliot, of course, and being inside one head, with all its peculiarities and solipsisms, even the same one year after year and book after book, can be a pretty rich vein to tap. (Though the churlish part of me wonders whether such a project would get a woman author labelled as 'personal' or 'minor,' rather than land her a manly poll with big yellow circles to mark the circumference of her greatness.) And ironically, his big theme actually necessitates that Roth spend more time with his female characters than a lot of male writers. No one that I know of has asked if Cormac McCarthy is a misogynist for creating worlds where women often don't exist. Personally I prefer writers who explore masculinity rather than take it as a given universal.   I think, for example, that Junot Diaz's latest collection is brilliant in how it does that - and not only because he includes a story from a woman's point of few.  It's still noteworthy that he does this, I think, and that it's hard to imagine Roth doing this. Not that anyone has to, of course, but shouldn't it be seen as a skill that's part of what we talk about when we talk about writers who can 'do everything'?

Still, at a certain point there's a failure of imagination that does get wearying. It's interesting that Benjamin Kunkel picked as his favorite passage this one from American Pastoral: "You get them wrong before you meet them, while you're anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you're with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again." That's Zuckerman talking about "Swede" Levov, whose placid world and un-Zuckerman like bonhomie has been torn apart by his daughter's radicalism. The daughter, Merry, is completely unconvincing as a character in her own right but completely convincing as a portrait of how the Swede would see her. But it's Zuckerman who's worried about getting the Swede right - Merry herself is portrayed as so irrational there's nothing right or wrong to get about her.

Interestingly, for me there are two times in Roth where a female character breaks outside of the projections and fantasies, one from the start of his career, and one from much later. As Vivian Gornick writes in her essay on Roth and Bellow from The Men in My Life, the relationship between Brenda and Neil in "Goodbye Columbus" has a tenderness that immediately disappears from his work thereafter: "When, close to the end, Neil says to himself, "Who is she? What do I really know of her?" it is not to demonize Brenda, it is to underscore the mystery of sexual love." To Neil's final reflection that "I knew it would be a long while before I made love to anyone the way I had made love to her" Gornick remarks, "A long while? How about never?" (I'd been working on this post for a while when I realized that of course Gornick had already said it all and said it better. I don't think the essay is online but there's an interview where she talks about its argument and the relationship between sexism and the Jewish thing. There's also a fascinating 1976 essay on Miller and Mailer and Roth in this collection.)

Never indeed, but to my mind something interesting did happen late in the game with Sabbath's Theater, the winner in the "best book" part of the poll.  Drenka, mistress and foil for the puppeteer Mickey Sabbath, is the one woman in Roth who is a peer of the man who pursues her - not only because her libido and erotic imagination match his, but because they're both outsiders. Unlike so many women in Roth, Drenka doesn't embody the fear of aging or illness or death; instead she's a kind of double for his own experience of isolation, someone whose solidity is as tenuous as his own. In the Gornick interview I linked above, she talks about how Roth and Bellow use women as a way to avenge the experience of feeling excluded.  By the time we get to Sabbath, though, there's something else: how the resistance to domestic and conventional life has made this almost-old man another kind of outsider, and the cost of this. Not that he should have done otherwise, exactly, but it's an ongoing joke in the book that he fancies himself the proper bohemian artist sacrificing everything for his art, but his art is puppets. 

Sabbath also points to something that's evident throughout late Roth: the sense that his protagonists are raging against an order that's long since faded away. Sabbath's friend asks him "Isn't it tiresome in 1994, this role of rebel-hero . . .Are we back to Lawrence's gamekeeper? At this late hour? To be out with that beard of yours, upholding the virtues of fetishism and voyeurism . .. the discredited male polemic's last gasp." Interestingly, Gessen says something similar  in the rest of his response: "Still, it might be said that Roth is slightly less useful in a world that is slightly more equal than the world he knew; where men and women do not stand on opposites sides of the question of sex, but arranged, together, something helplessly, against it; where sex is less of a battlefield and more of a tragedy." I'm not sure about the tragedy part:  Everyman, for example, doesn't work because adultery no longer carries that weight. I was reading Details at the hairdresser yesterday and there was a teaser for the Roth documentary coming out. So I guess Roth is still a male symbol of some sort for some people. It quoted him saying something about all those 19th century novels with adultery as their theme. I love adultery he says, don't you. Well, many people do, it would seem. But by Everyman he was tired enough of writing it that he breaks off a scene of the protagonist's fight with his wife, noting that scenes such as these are common enough, no need to write them again.

  I do think what Gessen says applies more to the pre-sexual revolution mores depicted in things like Goodbye Columbus, Letting Go and Indignation than to all of Zuckerman and Kepesh's exploits. Still it makes me want to give Gessen the benefit of the doubt that he was making a joke with the first part. Either way, it does point to something: as Freudenberger's comment shows us, no one wants to be the reactive critic, waging a finger at the artist's vision. But Gessen gets at what's behind her ambivalence: it's Roth's work itself which is so often the "reaction." This is not necessarily a fault, but it's something that demands a better question than one about greatness.

All of which is, I suppose, to say: I would have gone with the 52% who voted "well . . .. "


  1. A great essay. I've already tweeted on this but beyond the fact that your thoughts on this issue eerily articulate my own feelings, I was also amazed at how many of your local observations I also agree with. "The Great American Novel" is probably Roth's worst book (I couldn't actually finish it). And half way through I was thinking "Ah, but the essayist isn't doing justice to Drenka, one of Roth's most amazing creations." But then you started talking about Drenka in just the right terms. I wish this essay had run in the New York Review of Books or the New York Times Book Review. Jeet Heer

  2. Thanks Jeet! I don't remember exactly where, but there's some point where a 'fan' says something to Zuckerman like "I read all your books! Even the one about baseball!" So apparently Roth agrees too.