I do not wish to speak ill of the dead, and since I never met Philip Roth, nothing I write touches on who he was as a man, although inevitably that affected his choice of plot and theme. It is notable among the encomiums published after his death on Tuesday that the criticism of his novels leveled by women for decades are not mentioned—except as an aside in The New York Times. As is often the case when an admired white man dies, the white male obit writers claim him as one of their own.
As a young writer publishing my first novel at the time of Roth’s debut, to great acclaim, in 1960, Goodbye, Columbus, I wondered even then why this gentle, pastel novel, which I found appealing but without much weight, received so much attention. I can’t explain it except to say that our narrowly-focused, largely east coast literary culture likes to find and crown its “literary lions” when they are barely more than cubs. And Roth had talent, but so did a slew of other white male writers publishing their first books at the same time, notably Saul Bellow, John Updike and John Cheever.
And so of course did the rising wave of women writers, publishing significant works in the same period: Carson McCullers, Mary McCarthy, Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O’Connor, to name just a few. While all eventually received good reviews and a fairly large readership, none would be crowned literary lions—or lionesses—with the awards and praise heaped on Roth over the years.
Deciding to stop writing a few years ago was a well-chosen decision, and perhaps it reflected a degree of self-understanding as he re-read all his books. He told an interviewer that, while other writers tried to illuminate a landscape, he tried to shine a flashlight into a hole, admitting to another that he had only written about a certain type of man—one who in spite of growing up as a Jew in the midwest, could look back on that time as a pastoral ideal, without any recognition of the fact that it was an ideal built on exclusion.
Writers, including me, always have difficulty separating our personal relationships (with their inevitable disappointments) from the fictional characters we create. Roth’s disparaging portraits of women—hardly more than sketches of women either available or unavailable or disappointing sexually—seem to reflect his failed relationship with Margaret Williams in 1959, on which he based When She Was Good, a novel he later disparaged as apprentice work. He told reviewers that Williams had tricked him into marrying her by pretending she was pregnant—no one ever heard her side of the story—and remained a thorn in his side after they divorced. Of course it is dangerous to build a theory on that personal story, but it does seem to have served to limit Roth’s ability to imagine his women characters as whole. In his novel, The Breast, not mentioned in the obits, his male character is transformed into an enormous breast. The reader cannot fail to wonder at what alchemy of fascination, fear and disgust propelled this transformation.
I will seek as an anecdote interviews and on-line accounts of the Legacy Museum and Peace and Justice Memorial—the lynching memorial—in Montgomery, Alabama. This is the history the “last of the great white male writers,” and his brothers, were able to ignore. That alone is enough to condemn them, eventually, to obscurity.
And I will hope to understand one day why my first novel, After Such Knowledge, published in 1960, the same year as Goodbye, Columbus, perhaps rather too delicately centering on the problem of then-illegal abortion, attracted so little attention.
Of course there are many reasons. But one that still stands out is the death-grip of the white male establishment on writing in this country.