When the late American author Philip Roth was awarded the Man Booker International Prize in 2011, he did so amidst a storm of debate. In a way, it felt only fitting for a writer who has been viewed as controversial ever since his first book, Goodbye, Columbus led to him being lambasted by a crowd at New York’s Yeshiva University in 1962 (the crowd were angry about his depictions of Jewish identity).
Ten years later, he had drawn the public ire of Irving Howe, a leading intellectual that many considered the “voice” of the Jewish-American literary establishment. Roth was so wounded by this attack that he incorporated Howe into a character in his 1981 novel Zuckerman Unbound – he got his own back in his own way.
In short, Roth wasn’t the type to shy away from a good argument, and the discussions around his Man Booker award reignited one of the most familiar ones.
Carmen Callil, one of the award’s judges, resigned from the panel in protest when she learned that Roth was to be awarded the prize. Although she insisted that this was purely an issue of literary merit, her connections with the publishing house Virago, who had published a tell-all memoir by Roth’s ex-wife, led some to speculate that her resignation may have been motivated by questions over Roth’s portrayal of women.
These questions began to reach academic circles as early as 1976, when literary scholar Mary Allen argued that Roth had an “enormous rage and disappointment with womankind”. This was echoed over 30 years later when Vivian Gornick (herself one of the first critics to attack Roth’s misogyny) wrote that “for Philip Roth, women are monstrous”. This criticism stemmed from Roth’s depictions of volatile marriages and an emphasis on visceral male sexuality in his fiction, most notably in 1969’s infamous novel Portnoy’s Complaint. The book reviewer George Stade offered a common critique in his argument that Roth’s women were either “vicious and alluring” or “virtuous and boring”.
As with his earlier use of Irving Howe, Roth also drags his feminist critics into his fiction. A scene in his 1990 novel Deception sees him imagine himself in a courtroom, defending himself from charges of misogyny. This is an argument that Roth was inviting his readers to take part in. Many have taken up the challenge.
By the time that Deception was published, this debate had escalated to the point of a critical commonplace. As Callil’s and Gornick’s interjections prove, this has had a lasting legacy. A 2012 special edition of Philip Roth Studies which explored the topic of “Roth and Women” was introduced with the claim that “sexism or flat-out accusations of misogyny is often presented as a fait accompli when dealing with Roth”. It’s such a commonplace that it becomes hard to ignore as a fan of Roth, and impossible to ignore as a student of his work.
In a 2013 poll for New York Magazine, a selection of leading writers were asked for their opinions on his legacy. When asked: “Is Roth a misogynist?” and given a list of potential responses, 53% of respondents opted for “Well…”. This uncertain response sums up the critical and popular perspective on Roth. While the older view of Roth-as-misogynist still holds some sway, several recent think-pieces have been published by self-identified feminists defending Roth’s work in creative ways. With the success of TV programmes such as Girls, that take explicitly Rothian themes about sex and gender in new directions, the debate could well be moving on to new ground.
This isn’t to say that Roth is in the clear. Few scholars would defend scenes such as the one we find in 1974’s My Life as a Man, in which an instance of domestic abuse is described in a manner so laconic that it comes across as indefensibly vicious to many modern readers – including myself. Perhaps the work being done by scholars, biographers, and cultural critics over recent years offers a middle ground that can change the question from “Is Roth a misogynist?” to “Do Roth’s discussions of gender have anything to tell us in 2018?”
I think they do, but I’m hardly objective. As a scholar of Roth, the urge to defend his work is instinctive for me; the sense of loss I’ve felt following news of his death has surprised me. But news of Roth’s death has already provoked discussions about his lasting influence that have been ongoing since his retirement back in 2012, and will go on for the foreseeable future; these debates are not new.
These issues of legacy will be determined by how basic questions about Roth’s work will be discussed over the coming weeks, months and years. I hope they will continue the trend towards seeing Roth’s depictions of women as a complex and problematic, but deeply fascinating, topic.