Philip Roth Wasn't Judgmental Enough for His Critics

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s hard to think of a contemporary writer who inspires more intense disagreement than Philip Roth, who died Tuesday at 85. From the surface, the debate seems to be about feminism: Observers have long noted that Roth’s female characters are less than fully realized, while his male characters often express misogynistic attitudes. But the disagreement, I think, goes deeper — to the question of what social function literature should fulfill.

To Roth’s admirers, the point of literature is to expose depths of human experience that would otherwise be hidden or repressed. Roth certainly excelled in reporting on the vicissitude of desire, especially the male and the Jewish one. This is, after all, the man who famously described “the perfect couple: she puts the id back in Yid; I put the oy back in goy.” To his supporters, a part of Roth’s genius, going beyond his eternal search for the mot juste, is his taboo-breaking willingness to show what lust and shame look like stripped of piety or, really, much self-justification at all.

One reason, I think, for the depth of loyalty that Roth inspired was that some people found the experience of reading him liberating. That liberation came from the knowledge that a serious writer could put shameful fantasies and ruminations on the page and live to tell the tale.

Roth’s critics, in contrast, understand literature as a framework for moral reflection. It’s not that they would deny the right of writers to express their inner lives; it’s rather that they would like such revelations to be tempered by judgment. If Roth’s narcissistic male protagonists were ultimately brought low, or if the reader could ascertain some fundamental lack of sympathy between the writer and his lead characters, then these critics might well take a different view of Roth.

Just imagine a Roth who could have been read as providing insight into some of the most egregious #MeToo violators — all while clarifying a political position of allyship with women subject to objectification, subordination, abuse and harassment. In such a world, Roth might have been seen to perform a valuable social function.

Yet Roth’s critics lament, rightly no doubt, that his project is not merely descriptive but also about creating human sympathy for his thinly veiled semi-autobiographical subjects. In addition, critics can — again rightly — say the world has had enough of white men writing about their inner lives. The idea that when Roth started writing, in the late 1950s, his self-reflective topics of sexual desire and shame were arguably underexplored seems essentially implausible today. (The same may be said about the later Roth’s fascination with the aging process of the privileged and celebrated white man.)

If I’m right about this disagreement, what are the probable consequences for Roth’s legacy, about which he cared very much? There is little doubt that Roth’s critics can and will ensure that his work will not be broadly anthologized and that it will be pushed further still out of the tenuous position it holds in the American literary canon. In that sense, Roth’s legacy is far from assured. To the contrary, it seems all together likely to fade fast.

Whether Roth’s work will eventually re-emerge into a lasting place in the canon depends on whether its literary qualities can transcend its particular politics. After all, both Roth’s fans and haters experience his work very personally, which is precisely what posterity cannot do. For Roth to last, future readers will have to be unmoved and unaffected both by its liberatory aspects and by its retrograde views on sex and gender. The work can survive only if it has merits that rise above both.

For what it’s worth, that is the only kind of legacy that Roth would have wanted. His aspiration — or his conceit, if you prefer — was that he was trying to compete with Flaubert and James, not just trying to secure a following among aging Jewish men who identify despite themselves with his protagonists. In the most literal sense, then, time will tell. When it comes to literature that aspires to be durable, that’s how it should be.

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