Philip Roth meant everything to me when I first began writing, and I’ve followed his career more avidly than any other American novelist. He was a close friend of one of Delphinium’s authors, who sadly told me he was near the end a few days before his death was announced.
After Roth was gone, things felt different, surreal, the way they do when someone close to you dies. I had corresponded with Roth a few months before his death, and this may have had something to do with the sadness that I felt. And while I was glad that his passing inspired many tributes, I was upset to see his work attacked as I knew it would be.
A complaint voiced by several Jewish women writers is that Roth was either a misogynist or out of touch with the female soul. I suppose they are in a better position to judge than I am; however, the female characters who come to mind—Brenda Patimkin in Goodbye Columbus, Marcia Steinburg in Nemesis, Roth’s last novel—seem alive and fleshed out to me. Yes, perhaps they are not as deep and resonant as Roth’s male protagonists, but they inhabit the page with a mind of their own. Depicting the opposite sex with the same assurance and innate understanding that one has for members of one’s own sex is a challenge that every writer faces. And yet writers who are able to write women as well as men are not necessarily guaranteed a place in the high literary canon. Beyond this, many talented male gay writers have successfully written from the point of view of women without having the close-up intimate experience of being with a women. Their achievement, arguably, is made from an ability to identify with women.
The difference between an autobiographical writer such as Roth and a non-autobiographical writer such as Tom Wolfe (also recently deceased) is simply this. Roth plunges down and deep into his past and his excavation of whole memory material is polished and hybridized into fiction with his remarkable imagination. Wolf, on the other hand, goes outward instead of inward. He tries to encompass a broad spectrum of people and events in a sort of world view journalistic way, and in so doing his writing is less likely to be skewed by his personality. And yet his writing doesn’t live on the page the way Roth’s work does. Unlike in some of my favorite Roth novels, I’ve never read a Tom Wolfe book where I had so much invested in a character and grieved that this character was a creation of imagination rather than a real person. To write as closely to the bone as Roth does can sometimes reflect a less than generous view of certain people which can be taken as personal prejudice. And yet we all have intellectual shortcomings, and recognizing them seems to me a small price to pay to get a world like Roth’s that is indelibly and completely rendered.
You may also be interested in a post written by Steven Gaines when he asked when is an author too old to write.
Too Old to Write?!
by Steven Gaines