Books

Thoughts on a Semester of Reading Roth

Everyone at my college is required to take a senior seminar in their major in order to graduate, and mine happened to be a class solely dedicated to reading the texts of Philip Roth. My professor decided to focus on Roth in light of the author unfortunately passing away in May of 2018. We were uniquely positioned, my professor impressed upon us, with the opportunity to look at the whole of an author’s bibliography before the publication of a definitive biography on Roth’s entire life. This sort of limbo period of waiting would allow us to come to our own conclusions about Roth’s bibliography before many critics of other writers did. Of course, there was no way we could possibly get around to reading and discussing all of Roth’s texts in a single semester; rather, my professor selected about a dozen for us to focus on.

It became clear from the very first class that our professor was incredibly enthusiastic and excited about the prospect of such a seminar. The rest of us, however, were not entirely convinced. We were supposed to spend an entire semester reading Roth’s thoughts on Jewish American identity in the latter half of the twentieth century, adultery, breasts, and penises?! (if you’ve read his infamous novel Portnoy’s Complaint, then you surely know what I mean by those last two points.) My classmates and I made a not-so-silent conclusion all on our own: we were going to wholeheartedly dislike this senior seminar.

Our hypothesis seemed to hold strong for a solid few weeks. We criticized how the few women characters were portrayed as mere one-dimensional lovers or mothers in Goodbye Columbus (1959), denounced his blatant, outrageous sexism in Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), and balked at his near sexual fantasy about a fictionalized version of Anne Frank in The Ghost Writer (1979). For a second I thought about simply not finishing The Counterlife (1986) because it saddened me to read about so much flagrant adultery with absolutely no regard for how it impacted wives or families–until we were introduced to the character of Maria. Maria is a wife and mother who chooses to have an affair with the narrator of The Counterlife, a woman who is unexpectedly portrayed as intelligent, independent, and capable of railing against an uneven power dynamic in their affair. She is calm, composed, and the complete opposite of Portnoy’s “Monkey.”

My fellow classmates and I didn’t know what to do with this sudden, uncharacteristically non-sexist portrayal of women from Roth. Was it intentional, a sign of Roth’s own personal growth and maturity? Or was it an outlier, one that we would never see again as we continued on our Rothian journey? Perplexed, we felt ourselves shift gears a bit as we read more and more of Roth’s work.

To my great astonishment, I found that I actually enjoyed myself. While the women characters in Roth’s novels were not always justly portrayed–and we were sure to bring these instances up at every open opportunity–he also wrote several women who we couldn’t help but applaud. There was Drenka in Sabbath’s Theater (1995), Faunia in The Human Stain (2000), Philip’s mother in The Plot Against America (2004)… it was almost as though Roth had just come to the realization that women characters could be written about with just as much complexity and depth as men. Although I would never go so far as to laud Roth for his impeccable portrayal of fictional women. I did become much more willing to engage in dialogue about these characters that did not solely involve my classmates and I frustratedly ranting about how it’s all just breasts and penises in Roth’s eyes.

Roth’s sexist struggles aside, I also found myself enjoying his work from the perspective of narrative structure. Reading so many Roth novels in chronological order helped me see the remarkable strides he made in terms of experimenting with how stories can be told. The conflicting, layered levels of The Counterlife and the alternative version of history depicted in The Plot Against America are far, far departures from the straightforward monologue that is Portnoy’s Complaint. I couldn’t help but admire his impressive attention to detail. One of my classmates researched the specific stamps mentioned in The Plot Against America and lo and behold, Roth’s descriptions perfectly align with the images found. There’s something to be said for a writer that pours this much thought, energy, time, research, and attention into his work, and I was captivated by Roth’s seemingly never-ending ability to do just that.

So where does this leave Roth and I? I must admit that I stand corrected, at least to an extent: I handed in my final senior seminar paper with a greater appreciation for Roth’s works than I ever thought possible months ago. Does he have significant faults as a writer? Absolutely. Yet when read chronologically, one can see that he tried to remedy these flaws over time. And isn’t that the most any of us can ask?

What are your thoughts on Philip Roth and his writing? Have you ever read an author’s works chronologically? Has a class ever changed your perception of a writer? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

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Books, Feminist Fridays

Feminist Fridays: Masturbation Madness?

As I mentioned in my review of Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus collection, I’m currently taking senior seminar that solely focuses on Philip Roth. A few weeks ago I was assigned to read his 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint, and I have some thoughts. 

Portnoy’s Complaint is essentially one man’s long tirade about sex to his therapist. He starts by recounting his early years of experimenting with different ways of masturbating, from his sister’s bras to the liver that his family then ate for dinner. Throughout the novel we learn all about the women he’s hooked up with over the years, from prostitutes to random women he meets in his travels. Everything is described in graphic, explicit detail, including both the physical events as well as Alex’s (the narrator) thoughts about his many sexual experiences.

I don’t have a problem reading explicitly sexual books in class. What I have a problem is the blatant sexism in Roth’s novels and how it is often brushed off as being a mere “product of the time period.” Nope. Not an excuse. Just because something was written in a specific time and place does not mean it get’s a free pass to be read without any sort of discussion about its problematic elements. 

It also doesn’t help that the only women represented in Portnoy’s Complaint are those objectified for their bodies and who are thought of strictly in sexual terms. Even Alex’s mother is portrayed in this way, as shown when he implies that he wants to have sex with her (this novel is the definition of Freudian). And don’t get me started about Roth’s portrayal of menstruation: not only does he compare menstrual blood to that of meat, but he also claims that it was “better she should have bled herself out on the bathroom floor, better that, than to have sent an eleven-year-old boy in hot pursuit of sanitary napkins” (Roth 44). Why is this okay? And why don’t we talk about how it’s not okay?

Upon leaving my senior seminar on the day we discussed Portnoy’s Complaint, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed by all the things we hadn’t talked about. What about the way Alex calls one of the women he hooks up with “The Monkey”? What about how he only values women for their bodies, and once they start to talk about committed relationships or (gasp!) marriage, he calls them crazy and leaves them? Or what about the scene toward the end of the novel where he nearly rapes a woman? In what setting is it okay for these things to be brushed off in order to talk about Roth’s portrayal of Jewish identity for the millionth time this semester instead? 

Reading so much about masturbation from a man’s point of view also made me ask another important question: Why aren’t we reading about this from a woman’s point of view? Is there even an equivalent of this book written by a woman? If so, why isn’t it being talked about? If not, why hasn’t it been written? In a class dedicated to talking about the experiences of a man, I would hope for a bit more discussion about those of women. Considering recent events (particularly those in the United States), I feel as though Roth’s voice may not be the one that most desperately needs to be heard right now.

I understand the literary significance of Portnoy’s Complaint: it was revolutionary for its time, exploring topics of sex and masculinity in ways that hadn’t been done in such an explicit, graphic nature before. With that being said, there is absolutely no reason why we can’t discuss its enduring literary merit while also criticizing its problematic, sexist aspects. To do otherwise is to imply that what I feel as a woman reading this text doesn’t matter, that I should be able to turn off those emotions simply because it’s a “product of its time.” I’m sorry–I guess I’m just a product of my time, too.

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What are your thoughts on Portnoy’s Complaint or about reading problematic/sexist texts in class? Have any feminist texts you would recommend? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY