Goodbye, Philip Roth

“Looking back, in an afterword written on the 25th anniversary publication of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Roth wrote, ‘I wished to dazzle in my very own way and to dazzle myself no less than anyone else.’ He recalled admonishing himself, ‘All you have to do is sit down and work.’ Aspiring writers might engrave those words.” (Roger Cohen, “The Liberation in Roth’s American Berserk,” NYTimes).

“… The misogyny isn’t really the problem. After all, if one policed literature for bigotry, there would be little left to read. The problem is literary: these caricatures reveal a lack of not only empathy, but curiosity.” (Dara Horn, “What Philip Roth Didn’t Know About  Women Could Fill a Book,” NYTimes).

A female colleague once used a phrase in conversation that stuck with me — something like “Men just want to get their hoggin’s” or “He got his hoggin’s.” For me it was a colorful new instance of slang describing an outcome sought onesidedly by the unevolved male, like “He got his rocks off.”

I’ve tried to remember what I can about the two Philip Roth novels I read long ago. Of “Goodbye, Columbus” I recall that the title was cleverly revealed far along in the novel to be … from a school song? Nothing else. As for “Portnoy’s Complaint,” I retain only an image of a boy getting his hoggin’s into his gym socks. Dazzling himself?

Flaubert created Emma Bovary. The Bronte sisters and Jane Austen had some success writing in the male voice. Richard Jury and I have solved several mysteries together — he’s Martha Grimes’s handsome detective in “Man With a Load of Mischief” and other gumshoe yarns. Dara Horn’s column (cited above) triggered those reflections about authors projecting voice into the opposite gender.

Is a lack of curiosity about and empathy for women a willful state in an author? If so, it might expose Roth to an opprobrium able to be considered deserved by the caricatured party.

Or is a lack of curiosity about and empathy for women a congenital deficit in an author, one that can’t be overcome? If so, it could imply that Roth had a creative blind spot potentially limiting his scope as a novelist should he attempt to portray a convincing female character.

I don’t know if these are questions that even should be asked, much less answered. It’s a lame conclusion, but it’s what I’ve got. I’m too out of touch with Roth’s work to venture pronouncements, and I would like to avoid the pitfall of inflammatory bloviation swamping our discourse. As my female character, Garnet Belle Hatch of Stag City, sagely remarks, “In this town there are more opinions than people.”

Brick Struggling to Be Free, JMN, 2009. Photo. Copyright 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.

Brick Struggling to Be Free, JMN, 2009. Photo. Copyright 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.

(Copyright 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.)

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day, and watch Netflix and Prime Video for entertainment. I like to read and memorize poetry.
This entry was posted in Commentary, Quotations and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Goodbye, Philip Roth

  1. cindy knoke says:

    I do hear what you are saying.
    But females might just be just sorta tired of reading male authors who treat them like a different species.
    Ya know, like something to be dissected in a lab.
    Or on a bed.
    I was sick of Roth a long time ago, when I was young female.
    I wasn’t super interested in Portnoy’s masturbatory “complaints,” either, since I was too often afflicted by males like him.
    Most other males aren’t like this, which is the only saving grace for young females, and young males.
    And more people ought to write about males like this, but if it is more normative, is it more boring? Less gerst for literature?
    What the frick is wrong with us?
    Nabokov, when I was a young female, made me even more creeped out. He made his behavior with Lolita, in so many, maybe, dumb, intellectual people’s mind’s, okay.
    And, unsurprisingly, in his personal life, he was not a very good person at all.
    I can’t separate the art from creepy males artists, basically.
    Which is very sad for a shrink who specialized in treating males.
    Because most men are far better than this.
    Males have enough overwhelming problems on their plates, without having to take on, “great” paraphilic authors.

    • JMN says:

      I’m very glad to hear your thoughts. A woman’s perspective on females in literature is especially welcome. I’m more interested in other viewpoints than in mine. I was a young male when I read the two works by Roth, and they didn’t make much of a mark on me. Your mention of Nabokov is interesting. Even when I was somewhat of a reader by profession I never read him. He loomed in the offing, like some of the other “great” authors — one to get to, like Thomas Mann, but never reached! I too am having trouble separating art from sleaze in certain cases. Thanks for responding. I look forward to seeing more of your blog. (You’ve steered me to two new (for me) words: “gerst” and “paraphilic”!)

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