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