Public Nuisances

Philip Roth: Still Offending the Squares

May 31, 2011

Multiple Pages
Philip Roth: Still Offending the Squares

Even as a septuagenarian, Philip Roth can’t seem to stop offending the kind of people who make it their business to be offended all the damn time. The latest case in point: the very public and ill-tempered resignation of feminist writer Carmen Callil from the Man Booker Prize committee in protest against the award going to Roth. Huffing like Margaret Dumont in an old Marx Brothers movie, Ms. Callil declared that “I don’t rate him as a writer at all” and questioned whether anyone would still read his novels in twenty years’ time. She opined that reading his novels can make a reader feel as though Roth were “sitting on your face and you can’t breathe,” causing earnest literary critics across the world to giggle uncontrollably.

Roth has long been derided and disliked by the feminist literary community for his unreconstructed phallocentrism, if that’s even a real word. Ms. Callil quickly went into damage-control mode after her initial comments were seen as being needlessly ungracious by claiming that the real issue was not Roth’s alleged misogyny, but his American citizenship. Writing in Britain’s Guardian, she clarified that she felt the prize should have gone to a non-North American contender. She argued that Roth’s reputation as a walking penis did not inform her decision, but instead her concern that a more culturally diverse set of writers be acknowledged.

“Roth is acutely aware of the cultural shift that has seen the humorless, uptight moralists and censorious busybodies moving from the right to the left.”

Roth has been an amazingly enduring figure of contempt for public morality’s righteous defenders for over half a century now. His ability to piss people off remains admirably constant, from the Eisenhower era’s uptight, bow-tied arbiters of good taste to today’s politically correct apparatchiks. When his volume of short stories detailing lower-to-middle-class Jewish American life in the 1950s (Goodbye, Columbus) was released, he was denounced from synagogue pulpits (or whatever they call pulpits in synagogues) and spat at by rabbis on the streets because he had dared to portray Jews as flawed, ordinary humans rather than icons of righteous humility. Apparently unfazed by the hostility and outrage that such a comparatively mild book of social observation aroused, he unleashed Portnoy’s Complaint, which ups the ante on community-offense matters considerably:

…weep for your own pathetic selves, why don’t you, sucking and sucking on that sour grape of a religion! Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew! It is coming out of my ears already, the saga of the suffering Jews! Do me a favor, my people, and stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass….

If this passage—part of the teenaged Portnoy’s frustrated rant against his oppressively close-knit family—was Roth’s idea of offering an olive branch to aggrieved community members, one can understand why he never pursued a career as a diplomat. Feminists didn’t much care for the book or its sex-crazed protagonist either, and there was plenty to offend mainstream Catholics and Protestants as well as Jews. But perhaps the ultimate offense was simply to serious literary and intellectual types who couldn’t believe that Roth would turn his back on his early novels’ earnest, Jamesian drama and choose instead to write a book about overbearing Jewish mothers, teenage masturbation, and threesomes while seeming to use the words “cock” and “cunt” 20 times per page.

As the conservative 50s gave way to the permissive 60s and 70s, Roth maintained an uncanny ability to offend the squares, although who exactly comprised “the squares” changed with the decades. In 1995’s Sabbath’s Theater, Roth is acutely aware of the cultural shift that has seen the humorless, uptight moralists and censorious busybodies moving from the right to the left. His protagonist, the aging and (of course) oversexed protagonist Mickey Sabbath, finds himself on the wrong side of morality’s righteous defenders in two very different decades. First, in the 50s, the lecherous young street puppeteer is arrested for removing a coed’s breast from her blouse during a public performance; the morally outraged here are devout Catholics and indignant policemen. Then in the PC nineties, he loses his job at a university for gross sexual harassment of a girl decades his junior; this time the villain is a stridently feminist Japanese Dean of Students. Ruminating on his past and present, Sabbath caustically observes:

When I got written up in The Nation for taking a tit out on the street I was their noble savage for a week. Today they’d excoriate my balls off for so much as thinking about it, but in those days it made me heroic to all right-thinking people.

Mickey Sabbath has watched as Western society has changed over the past 50 years, but he has always maintained his place as an outsider—a cynical observer of the overconfident self-importance that often attaches itself to defenders of the status quo, an unbuttoned (in every sense) character who is too exuberant and undisciplined for his own good. The near-seamless switch from conservative to liberal orthodoxies, and the role of the hapless individual floating on the tides of these changes, is a theme that Roth comes back to often in his later works—notably The Human Stain, in which a light-skinned black man goes from having to endure brainless racism (and thus trying to hide his racial identity) to being victimized by a particularly brainless strain of Clinton-era campus political correctness.

So there is something oddly cheering about seeing Roth, now in his seventh decade in publishing, still managing to annoy a Booker judge so much that she’s willing to storm off a committee in protest because she finds his work offensive. (Or rather, she simply doesn’t think it’s very good. No, wait, it’s because he’s American. I lost track.)

Roth is almost old enough to be your granddad’s granddad yet still has the capacity to get under self-righteous people’s skin as effortlessly as he did 50 years ago. You’d have to be stone dead not to find this amusing and a bit awe-inspiring.


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