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The Grapes of Roth

Philip Roth’s legacy of writerly narcissism left a generation of young novelists with the wrong idea of what makes great literature

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Otto Dix, Procuress (Kupplerin), 1923. (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, © Otto Dix / 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)
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Roth Redux

Philip Roth’s defenders point to his later, more serious works to argue for his place in the canon. In truth, those books make clearer his weaknesses.

The Facts on Philip Roth

Introducing The Rebutter
The Arbiter

Philip Roth needs no introduction. Now 78, he has been awarded every major literary commendation America has to offer and is beloved by generations of readers, American Jews in particular.

But while Roth’s merit as a writer is a measure of personal taste—like all art, it makes some swoon and leaves others unmoved—his place in the American canon deserves a second look. Like most second looks, this one, too, reveals the pockmarks and blemishes that the besotted beholder might have ignored the first time around. And while Roth’s body of work is multitudinous and diverse, any discussion of his writing must begin with Portnoy’s Complaint, the book that cemented Roth’s reputation and whose lascivious ghost still haunts much of the now-elderly writer’s novels, as well as those of his young successors, the current generation of American writers.

Because Roth is fond of similes—there’s an amusing bit in Portnoy’s Complaint in which the youthful Alexander hears an elderly man say he’d slept like a log and is moved, Roth writes, by “the full force” of likening one thing to another—let us attempt to rethink him thusly: Portnoy’s Complaint, as well as most of Roth’s other novels, is like a nasty tumble down a steep slope—a throbbing rush of endorphins as it unfurls, a bit of fun for those watching from the sidelines, but, overall, little more than a mess of broken bones and long-term aches.

In keeping with the medical mindset, let us begin looking at Roth’s legacy by parsing the pseudo-clinical definition preceding the novel that catapulted him to stardom. “Portnoy’s Complaint,” he writes, is “a disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature.”

This quip serves as a pithy history of American letters. What, after all, was Walt Whitman if not a bard of the struggle between selfish, sexual urges and the call of society at large? What was Emily Dickinson if not a hermit cryptically communing with the culture? Or Hemingway, driven by his libido both to bedrooms and battlefields? Whether they believed in transcendence or predetermination, they shared a common, American faith in the individual and in his or her ability to emerge from the solipsistic fog that enshrouds us all and into the bright, well-lighted spaces we share with our fellow men. Put simply, while all American writers write first and foremost of the individual, the great ones are, to use a sterling phrase, large enough to contain multitudes; peek into Emerson, say, and see America in its entirety.

Do the same with Roth, and you’d be lucky to see much past New Jersey. That is because Roth’s primary preoccupation is Roth. This is most evident in Portnoy, a novel designed as a long rant on the analyst’s couch in order to permit its author the freedom to indulge in the brute vulgarities only confessions may comfortably contain. But read Roth’s subsequent novels, and you hear the same music of me: Nathan Zuckerman, David Kepesh, Mickey Sabbath—they are all facsimiles of their creator.

That alone isn’t much reason to criticize Roth, but their recurring base obsessions are. Here, for example, is Portnoy, wailing about his former wife, whom he regretfully nicknames The Monkey. “The poetry she used to read to me at Antioch,” he writes, “the education she was giving me in literature, a whole new perspective, an understanding of art and the artistic way … oh, why did I ever let her go! I can’t believe it—because she wouldn’t be Jewish? ‘The eternal note of sadness—’ ‘The turbid ebb and flow of human misery—’ ” Roth leaves that sentence unfinished, with that bit from Sophocles standing on the precipice of a new paragraph. It’s a powerful and subtle note: Having received from his lover the gift of a literary education, he turns around and realizes that by leaving her his life has acquired much in common with Greek tragedies.

You don’t have to wait more than a line, however, before Portnoy’s mind wanders south: “Only,” he writes, “is this human misery? I thought it was going to be loftier! Dignified suffering! Meaningful suffering—something perhaps along the line of Abraham Lincoln. Tragedy, not farce! Something a little more Sophoclean was what I had in mind. The Great Emancipator, and so on. It surely never crossed my mind that I would wind up trying to free from bondage nothing more than my own prick. LET MY PETER GO! There, that’s Portnoy’s slogan. That’s the sotry of my life, all summed up in four heroic dirty words.”

It’s a perfect embodiment of Roth’s foundational move. First, set up a lofty premise, imbued with suffering and meaning and art, a furnace of emotions, every bit as universal as the great masterworks. Then, talk about your dick.

The superabundance of cock in Roth’s work is more than a stylistic choice aiming to shock and unnerve. It transcends even the fair accusations of chauvinism frequently lobbed at Roth by feminist critics and former lovers. It is his primary state of mind. Like a true artist, he feels that turbid ebb and flow very acutely; a delicate and accurate seismograph of suffering, he registers its minute tremors. But he knows no other way to deal with the burden than unzipping his fly. Whereas Whitman, most likely a closeted homosexual, tamed his libido and taught it wonderful poetic tricks, and whereas Dickinson exerted superhuman pressure and turned hers into a diamond of sublimation, Roth ejaculates. Because he is a talented writer, frequently this is pleasurable to observe. But he is never in possession of the loom—so elegantly mastered by his contemporary, Saul Bellow—that lets a writer process his or her bales of bile into beautiful fabrics that keep us warm.

None of this would have been too bad had Roth, befitting of writers of his modest ambitions and capabilities, taken his place in the second or third row of American literary lions. Instead, his intoxicating admixture of solipsism and lust made him the patron saint of a new generation of American Jewish authors, for whom writing is a torrent of self-obsessions, hang-ups, and put-ons, mitigated by nothing more than a thin veneer of intellectualism. Sam Lipsyte, for example, is Roth’s child; the angry, cynical, and foul-mouthed protagonist of his recent novel, The Ask, would have felt a shock of recognition had he run into Portnoy or Sabbath, and naming a female character Vargina is what Roth might have done had he grown up a few decades later, under the auspicious glow of Internet porn. Even Hollywood is in Roth’s debt: The creators of the eminently successful American Pie series took a page out of Roth’s book when they had their lead character masturbate by copulating with a pie, a sweeter version of Portnoy and his liver.

Roth’s appeal isn’t hard to understand. In an age when technological platforms and cultural edicts both favor a proliferation of the personal and the profane, he is the Grand Old Man, the master whose works are now gospel for anyone too lazy or selfish or dull to embark on the sort of exploration of individualism that has historically made American letters such a rich and blooming field. Those who grew up on Roth’s novels may be forgiven for believing that art entails not Dickinson’s measured sublimation but Roth’s uninhibited masturbation and were only too thrilled to follow his suit; it is, after all, much easier and, I imagine, more satisfying to crown the penis king and abandon morality, civility, responsibility, and all the other blocks with which we build, step by painstaking step, the bastions of a worthwhile society.

That must never happen. Whether we enjoy Philip Roth’s work or not, we’d do well to reconsider what he has wrought, and make sure that we fall on the right side in the eternal struggle between the heart and the groin. That, after all, is what great writing has always helped us accomplish; the rest is little more than self-gratification.

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We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

Shalom Freedman says:

Ideologically I am not at all a friend of Philip Roth. But he is a great American writer and this little nasty piece of put- down will not in any way convince me otherwise.
Why is Roth a great American writer? First because he is a comic genius. Secondly because he sees into the heart of all kinds of American realities, and creates great characters in the process. Roth’s language is brilliant. ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ has passages of painful and sublime beauty. ‘Poignant’ is a word Roth uses and poignant his writing often is.
The claim that he writes only about himself is very very mistaken. Consider those long chapters in ‘American Pastoral’ in which he describes a the whole of an American industrial and social world. Consider the way he totally succeeds in creating a whole era in works like ‘Nemesis’. Has there ever been more deep and true writing than the writing Roth has done in some of his recent work on ageing?
Having read and even written part of a Ph.D. thesis on Roth I can make long lists of his lapses including whole novels, such as ‘When She Was Good’ Roth too can be way off in vulgarity going beyond humor into simple stupid lowness. But he has redemption in him and remarkable feeling. Consider how he treated the life of his father in ‘Patrimony’. He has also written about community and the individual’s relation to it in convincing, and even powerful ways. In his recent work ‘Nemesis’ he seems to willfully refute every cliche- criticism of his work by doing the opposite of what he had done before. His persistence and dedication to his writing are exemplary. But what is most important is that he has added a real chapter to the ongoing story of American Literature. He has given us more than one American classic.

Wow. Leibowitz gets so many things wrong here I don’t know where to begin. Portnoy’s Complaint is far from my favorite of Roth’s novels, but this piece is a fundamental misreading of a work that intends primarily to satirize the very attitude that Leibowitz excoriates. And his myopia–his own preoccupation with Portnoy’s ignoble cock–completely ignores the accomplishments of Roth’s later novels (in which Nathan Zuckerman is usually little more than a framing device), which address virtually all of the large themes of American life. So they are set in New Jersey–so what? Weehawken is Roth’s Yoknapatawpha County.
I’m not going to continue to dissect this, due to a cough medicine induced fog, but this isn’t even good criticism–it’s a short-sighted, willfully ignorant piece masquerading as a brilliant contradiction. The thing about being the Devil’s advocate is that you’re usually wrong.

David Mikics says:

An interesting piece, which I wish had considered Roth’s later work, almost universally acknowledged to be his greatest: _American Pastoral_, _Sabbath’s Theatre_, _The Human Stain_, _The Counterlife_…

Incidentally, “the eternal note of sadness” and “the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery” are phrases from Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach,” not Sophocles.

Steven G. Kellman says:

“Portnoy’s Complaint” made Philip Roth rich and famous. Get over it. Roth did, to create some of the most moving and enduring works of contemporary fiction. “The Ghost Writer,” “American Pastoral,” “The Human Stain,” and other works are not celebrations of narcissism but rather brilliant explorations of the limitations of the ego and the finitude of the human condition.

Youre bube says:

Liel you are still a little pisher-have some respect for your elders

Hal Dresner says:

I agree with Freedman and Kate. The best stuff in this piece is Roth’s own writing. Leibowitz has one easy point to make but even it falls flat because sexual obsession was appropriate for Portnoy’s pre-liberated era. And, as others have pointed out, Roth’s later novels captured themes appropriate to their time. Plus there’s the touching memoirs and the wildly experimental multi-personality stuff. Sorry but it takes a better writer than Leibowitz to take on The Master.

Perhaps Mr.Liebovitz should stick to the mindless violence of video games and not tackle the intricacies of Mr. Roth’s work. Like all video game victims,all that happens is “splat”. But then mass killing and destruction is the coin of the realm of video gaming. Thankfully, Mr. Roth will not lie down dead and disappear from the screen however Mr. Liebovitz aims his lasers.

Yeah, yeah. We all see the enormous narcissism in his work. The last handful of books, a variation on the theme of aging, ED, lusting after, BUT, the story aside, the writing, the choosing of words and arrangement of sentences and paragraphs, nearly perfect. After Claire’s NY’er confessional, to read “American Pastoral”, a meditation on a father’s grief over his estranged daughter; from a man who insisted his wife had to make a choice between her daughter and him. And, who has written more provocatively and/or metaphorically about the American Jew’s modern dilemmas…the Holocaust, Israel, anti-semitism, anti-communism, etc.?

Verificationist says:

I would like to stand up for the pisher Leibovitz. (Kate, in your righteous fury at so many of his wrongs, you might at least spell his name correctly.) Not because I know him, though I do. Because, as a 32-year-old American-Jewish writer of fiction, I have struggled mightily to find a hero in Philip Roth. It’s hard. Some books do leave you gasping, moved, enlarged — for me, Patrimony (his most humane and beautiful book), Operation Shylock, The Plot Against America. They are grand in craft and they are grand in statement. But American Pastoral, Sabbath’s Theater — what self-obsessed drags. Well-researched and indelibly woven sections on America’s industrial sector do not a large concern make. Obsessing about penis work in Sabbath does not make a treatise on “sexuality in America,” though it’s all too easy for an academic to insist so. And all of you wind-sniffers who were ravaging Roth for being an enfant terrible during Portnoy and now defend him like a good Jewish boy — your bubbe would have a couple things to say to you, “youre bube.” Perhaps Liel’s piece made too broad a claim, but it has value. Roth is usually, though far from always, a tremendous narrativist; always a grand stylist; but sometimes he makes it really hard for you to see him as anything other than a dick-obsessed solipsist. Maybe it’s all funning, maybe it’s just another of his black-is-white subterfuges. If so, he’s very talented at them.

Meier David Shankman says:

This essay is exactly right. And for the Robitussin-addled person who dared to suggest that Philip Roth’s entire body of work is worth one comma placed by Faulkner, I hope you feel better soon, but you have a long way to go to be remotely correct in your literary analyses.
Quit apologizing for Roth, you dyspeptic alterkakhers. It’s true, he can write a good joke. But as a producer of literature, he sucks. Sucks! Leil is correct to distinguish Bellow’s greatness from Roth’s callowness, but so many people continue lumping them together, because they both offer up enough recognizable yiddishkeit to comfort readers who respond like lapdogs to familiarity. If Saul Bellow is Ralph Ellison, Philip Roth is Tyler Perry. Grow up and accept the facts, you self-chafing apologists!

Dick Mulliken says:

Astounding. This about a writer who has won every award there is, including the Pullitzer, the Booker, National Book Award, PEN and soforth. Certainly one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. For those who don’t know him, I’d recommend the Zuckerman books, especially THE GHOST WRITER. He has an astounding, brilliant mind. of course he has negative features. I’d mention in passing that he is a very cold writer. But then, so was Flaubert.

I see the heart and the groin working together in Portnoy and Roth’s later work. He shows characters struggling to integrate these two human body parts so as to make a mensch in a world where mensches are in short supply. Portnoy is a coming of age story and, so framed, this struggle is comic. I’d rather be marooned on a desert island with Portnoy than Catcher any day. But what do I know? I’m just an elderly writer who can’t see past New Jersey either.

Tawny Leon says:

I agree with Dick Mulliken- when Roth wins a big prize, they should be changing how it’s spelled to “Pullitzer.”

I also agree with Jane Isenberg- you don’t know much.

fred lapides says:

This piece is right on! Roth is concerned with his being Jewish at a time and in a place when that was “an issue”…so too was I.

Roth is concerned with a young man’s sexuality and fantasies…me too.

Roth worried about love, marriage, adultery…so too me.

As he aged, Roth focused upon regret, illness, decay…so too, at 82, do I.

Roth may not be our best author, ever, but he is, as Mailer would say, a strong contender in the league of greats.

Lawrence White MD says:

Instead of focusing on Roth’s first novel, how about looking at his last one, “Nemesis”. This is a morality fable that is unsurpassed in its content, themes, characters, and style.

Or look at Roths other works, including “American Pastoral”, “the Human Stain”, “the Plot against America”, and others. You will find (in my opinion) the finest literature that is currently being created.

Phillip Roth is a treasure. Taking apart Portnoy’s Compliant is an old habit, I happen to have enjoyed this work, but admittedly it is not for everyone. I suggest you look at the totality of his work.

NB Reilly says:

The poetry she used to read to me at Antioch,” he writes, “the education she was giving me in literature, a whole new perspective, an understanding of art and the artistic way … oh, why did I ever let her go! I can’t believe it—because she wouldn’t be Jewish? ‘The eternal note of sadness—’ ‘The turbid ebb and flow of human misery—’ ”

The character referred to in the above quote is not The Monkey, but The Pumpkin (AKA Kay Campbell, so named by virtue of “her pigmentation and the size of her can”), Portnoy’s college girlfriend. The Monkey was functionally illiterate by Portnoy’s assessment, so it’s doubtful that she’d be educating him on literature. The Pumpkin is only briefly mentioned in this passage as an interlude amidst Portnoy’s Monkey-ranting, hence: “And there, to cause me to kick my ass even more, there all blue below me, the Aegean Sea. The Pumpkin’s Aegean!” And so on.

Though I usually appreciate Liel’s thoughts, I must agree with those who find this attempted take-down of one of our smartest, funniest, most surprising, constantly-evolving writers quite callow and, as already said, myopic. For one thing, Roth’s opus is just too damn huge not to contain works that fail, in one way or another. I found Sabbath’s Theatre unreadable, for example. I still bow to PR’ s courage to risk, to write without trying to ingratiate, to go as far as he can, and then farther into uncharted regions rather than repeating past successes. The Roth of Patrimony is not the Roth of Portnoy. I can’t think of another living American writer who has started as a wunderkind and then matured over the course of a long career into the greatness that Roth has achieved. His recent group of historical and alternate-historical novels (plot against the Jews, I married a communist, american pastoral) are unique and important explorations of worlds much larger than the priapic, narcissistic one that Liel would confine him to. His even more ecent shorter books that take up mortality are indeed cold, disturbing, bleak, but also finely wrought, deeply insightful and personally unsparing. To call Roth narcissistic because he mines his own experience is like accusing Rembrandt or Van Gogh of self-absorption because they painted self-portraits. And to hold up the putative sexual repression of Emily Dickenson as a noble alternative to Roth’s writing about sexuality and desire strikes me as oddly puritanical, and, if you’ll pardon me, a bit goyish.

Jerry P says:

Your conservative colors are all too clear in this prissy screed. Oh, why did we have to have the twentieth century, to say nothing of the twenty-first? Why can’t we all be like Emily Dickinson, whose inner life you have so generously explained to us? Why can’t everybody write those stirring, uplifting novels that my mother used to cry over and enjoy so much?

Sam Greg says:

Anybody who thinks Roth’s the best we’ve got doesn’t read widely enough. American Pastoral is at base a novel about how things go to shit when you integrate and intermarry. And the description of the glove-making process is fine, but you can find better reading in any random issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Or Agni. Or Granta. Or Tin House. Or Harper’s. Or the New Yorker. Or several dozen authors who, while not as prolific, are certainly more poetic, insightful, and, above all, interesting!

henry gottlieb says:

what nonsense ………..

Henry Miller says:

At least when I spiral my prose genital-ward, it’s to the sweet pungent rose of womanhood and not my own goddamn johnson!

Sarah V. says:

This article is great and its argument is well worth. As you read Roth, in e.g. The Human Stain, you can hear how he pulls out the “good stuff” for a bit, and then strings together some words with absolutely no respect for the reader, to get to his next aria. Similarly, the string of books, as some of these comments indicate – strong hits and then uncaring misses. If writing for a reader is parallel to relationship (is, in fact, relationship) then that pattern, to me, sums it all up. His penis is relevant to his novels since Roth’s approach and writing process suggest how he relates to women, as a parallel to his penis, and it is a bit unworthy in the long run. In fact, the only way to SALVAGE Roth might be to consider not that he uses penises to talk about life and reality – but rather that his novels and his oeuvre as a whole describe how the male penis works. Maybe that’s worth documenting in our culture, if anyone is interested in that, but it’s a limited (if unusually creative) use of literature.

Jameson says:

I didn’t realize anyone still mistook Portnoy for Roth. But then again, this article is just silly. Ever since TABLET remade itself (again), it has become remarkably self-regarding. No, wait, that’s supposed to be Roth’s problem…

Cock? Really?

Waimea Williams says:

Thank you, thank you. A long overdue reassessment. Your explanation of Roth’s effect on the younger generation of writers is particularly good.

RONNIE` says:

I stopped reading right there.

Gregory says:

Some random thoughts:
1) the younger generation sometimes seems to take itself extremely seriously. I can see why Roth would be annoying, if not disturbing, for folks like that.

2) This thought about the writer aside, the critique of Roth’s readers and how they’re responded doesn’t necessarily reflect badly on Roth, does it?

3)Leaving aside the complaints about Roth’s readers, I wonder if the writer has ever read Montaigne?

Ben Birnbaum says:

Whatever one thinks of Roth’s work—and I am an enjoyer and admirer—to blame him for the declining maturity of fiction, even if it can be proved that we’re in fact sliding down that ancient proverbial slope, is silly. First, great writers write against their elders even as they draw sustenance from same. Roth certainly did, and if those who have followed him choose simply to recapitulate his rebellion, which seems to be the charge here, that can hardly be laid at Roth’s feet, and so much the worse for those 21st century writers intent on replaying 20th century games direct from the box score. No wonder literary fiction’s in the shitter, and American-Jewish fiction with rare exceptions irrelevant to anyone but American-Jewish readers (and fewer and fewer of those). Second, Roths don’t rule culture. Kardashians and Clintons and Paternos do. But they don’t have heels worth nipping at here, do they? Anyway, endurance is the test in art. Check back in 100 years. I’m willing to put $100 on behalf of my (as yet unborn) great-grandchild in a bank account saying American Pastoral will be in print (or whatever they’re going to call whatever it is.) If anyone’s got a great-grandchild (or prospective one) they’d like to back contra, let me know.

Philo-Froth:As our “culture” stupily rejects the diverse disciplines of Walt and Emily, as it sloppily slides into the Earth’s first Pornotopia, lets all zip up our flies and opt to read the emerging works of Internation English literature, where sexual obsessions don’t dominate the prose of,say, R.K.Narayan, Patrick White, and Chinua Achebe.Our solipsism is a reversible choice. The problem is rooted in the destructively fatal myth of American Exceptionalism, sadly just exceptionally irrelevant. Patrick D. Hazard, Weimar,Germany.

blindboy says:

I agree. Roth is the most over rated writer of his generation. To speak of him in the same breath as Bellow or Cheever is absurd. Even UpdIke has a broader, less self obsessed vision.

Roger Seamon says:

This misses so many points that one boggles. The blurb about lust and morality is funny, a dead-pan expression of the banally obvious, which nonetheless was, is, and will be a staple of good stories for some time to come. The critics is obtuse.
Roth has given us very funny, lively, intelligent portraits of nuts like himself— and us! He is not recommending that we be like that, indeed he is making us laugh, cry, feel sad etc. at the fact that we are like that and mostly can’t help it. Which is just what great writers do. A very poor effort to lower Roth’s value on the literary exchange. Buy!

Paul Rogers says:

This is ungenerous to say the least. To focus on Roth’s dealing with libido alone is to ignore the magisterial sweep and profundity of works like “American Pastroral” and the unsettling reworking of history in “The Plot Against America.” I find it revealing that this review concentrates on Portnoy (which is, after all, a very early work in the canon) and fails to acknowledge the mastery of the later novels. I’m consistently amazed at the quality and fecundity of his work of the last two decades. He is indeed a Grand Old Man of American letters, and maybe it requires the objectivity of an outsider (I’m a Brit) to truly appreciate his brilliance.

Charles says:

Roth’s real subject is not himself but art, the way Cezanne’s paintings were not about apples but about painting itself. Roth himself has alluded to this many times, especially in his recent novel Exit Ghost. In my opinion, the strongest example of this writing-as-art is The Counterlife, where the plot itself is split into alternatives and we do not know which one to believe. Neither, is the answer; just the power of the novel as art. His admittedly excessive preoccupation with himself is only the vehicle for his art, like Cezanne’s apples. Roth would answer he can only use first-hand material; no pun intended.

Anonie says:

You obviously have penis envy.

Peter Tarrant says:

At last, a writer other than Kingsley Amis who realizes Portnoy’s Complaint for the rigmarole it is: obscenity, howling capitals, bad puns and self-absorption. Aside from this, the book’s stylistic, uh, climaxes mislead the novice reader into supposing that Roth is all staccato yelping, not the exponent of stately sentences he so often is in the later stuff.

For me, his American Trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and the Human Stain) is Roth’s best bet for lasting canonical value. These concerted individual meditations successfully open up into something far more panoptic. Get to grips with these novels if you want the best of him.

This tepid screed, moralistic, self-righteous, could have been written by Roth himself-in the guise, that is, of one of those characters who accuse Zuckerman or other Roth aliases of Jewish self-hatred, licentiousness, narcissism, etc. Roth’s better fiction entertains every accusation raised by this preachy piece, and answers them, and does so much more enjoyably and intelligently. Novels are about complexity and ongoing dialogue. This essay is about rigidity and fallacious certainty.

Dan Kubis says:

Portnoy’s Complaint isn’t Roth’s second novel, it’s his fourth, which may seem like a meaningless complaint, except for the fact that this writer seems to be unaware of most of Roth’s novels.

Roth’s “signature move” isn’t to set up a lofty premise then talk about his dick. If he has something like a “signature move,” it comes towards the end of the Counterlife, when he has Zuckerman argue against the idea of an “irreducible self.” This argument licenses all the writing that he’s done since then (1986), work which very explicitly moves beyond Roth’s concerns in Portnoy’s Complaint, but which isn’t considered or even recognized in this essay.

It may be true, if cliched, to say that Portnoy’s Complaint is solipsistic. But to write about Roth’s legacy without considering the work he’s done since then is irresponsible.

Dan Kubis says:

(My apologies to the writer for implying in my previous comment that he wrote that Portnoy’s Complaint was Roth’s second book. That was a misreading on my part. The substance of my comment remains.)

Yadda yadda. Read “The Ghost Writer”. Never a more gorgeous book. In the words of Bill Cosby, “He took what he had, and hit it out the park.” All you can ask of an artist.

Certainly the best antidote to bad criticism is great art.

“The Speed of Darkness”
By Muriel Rukeyser

“Whoever despises the clitoris despises the penis
Whoever despises the penis despises the cunt
Whoever despises the cunt despises the life of the child

Resurrection, music, silence, and surf”

Whoever despises Roth despises art.

Lee Marc Stein says:

American Pastoral, which many critics consider Roth’s best novel, refutes your thesis as does The Plot Against America. Little of either novel deals with sex; they are in the broadest sense political novels and they beautifully weave the social fabric and psyche of America.

Thanks for saying it.

Luke Lea says:

Ding, dong, the dick is dead!

Bruce Harris says:

Of course, reducing a great artist to his pud is perhaps inevitable in a post-Freudian world, but one would have hoped for a more compelling bill of particulars.

Spinoza says:

If you’re gonna attack Roth, at least get his characters straight. Felt like I was reading a downloaded college paper for a minute there.

As far as generational conflict goes, it’s been at least 15 years that today’s nice beta male literary types have been slamming the alpha male douchebaggery of Roth and his ilk in a manner that wouldn’t be out of place in a neoconservative magazine. (A good example is Foster Wallace on Updike). The old guys were intoxicated and enthralled by women and sexual freedom (though also melancholy about it); our guys are blase when not downright embarrassed.

Guess who’s more fun to read?

Tracy Dowling says:

As a goy who didn’t get around to reading Portnoy’s Complaint until it was twenty years off the presses, I enjoyed this article. Actually I enjoyed Portnoy though I did tell the teacher who assigned it “Now that I have read it, I’m going to do something very Catholic — burn it.” However, it is still sitting on my shelf.

Roth is a very fine writer (as my Irish Catholic husband said, ‘you can’t take that away from him’) and indeed you can’t. However, eventually one must wake up after the wet dream and attend to the fact that half the human race does not share the male sexual preoccupations–in fact, after the good laugh, they are pretty boring. Subject matter does play a role in great writing, as does heroism and nobility. The Jewish heritage has plenty of the latter qualities, but I can’t find them in Roth. One wonders if Roth sees his Judaism as anything more than a cultural accident. Too bad.

What about American Pastoral?

Mr Leibovitz seems to dislike Roth so much, that he disregards the real important meanings of Roth’s books

Dude, this is one flaccid piece of criticism. Feels like you’re trying on words that are a few sizes too big — the worst of writerly crimes.

Swede Levov says:

Please stop mentioning American Pastoral until I settle my lawsuit with Mr. Roth’s publishers. I would not leave that gonif in charge of my glove business for five minutes.

jebron says:

Roth, an excellent writer, is or has become a professional malcontent who has stooped to marketing short stories (Nemesis, The Humbling) as novels. The result is priceless description and commentary which leaves us in his sour and empty world. Be warned.

J Monti says:

Thank you for finally saying this out loud. Roth is a pervert. I often feel the same way about Updike. I do not understand why American literary critics continue to praise Roth. Same for Steve Martin in Shopgirl – does anyone want to read about old man groins? Can anyone explain the appeal? I feel sort of cheapened and depressed after these bits.

Read American Pastoral or The Human Stain and then tell us that Roth has been nothing but a talented solipsist. Read the harrowing passage in American Pastoral in which the protagonist, who has lived the model American life, attempts but fails to rescue his 60’s era child from the magnetic pull of the nihilistic counter culture. An entire arc of our recent generational history captured in a tightly controlled exposition of pure anguish.

I like “First, set up a lofty premise, imbued with suffering and meaning and art, a furnace of emotions, every bit as universal as the great masterworks. Then, talk about your dick.”…But then isn’t this true of America itself…everything leades to sex…

Corey Fischer says:

I’m heartened by the outpouring of intelligent support for Reb Phillip which is mostly based on careful, informed readings of his work. I enthusiastically agree with the comment on the brilliance of The Counterlife and the others that remind us of Roth’s hilarious preempting of the critical voices who trash his (or alter-ego Zuckerman’s) work for its alleged obscenity or because it’s “bad for the Jews” (“Not in front of the Goyim” department). I would only add that Roth’s work not only stands on its own but is a bright thread in the tapestry of American Jewish literature. His opus draws ancestral DNA from many eras, most obviously from the first generation American Yiddish writers and the breakthrough, lyrical transmutation of Jewish immigrant demotic by pioneers Clifford Odets and Henry Roth, and inspires those who follow. Finally, I think a shout out is due to PR for his work as an early advocate of Soviet-Jewish writing and for his work on behalf of free speech around the world.

Liel: try reading Roth’s (mostly)non-Jewish, baseball themed “The Great American Novel.” You will be relieved that the team is even exiled from its New Jersey home. Plus the best opening to a novel: “Call me Smitty”!

John J. Healey says:

What a very silly article this is!!!

James Smith says:

Methinks the conflicts between the flesh and the spirit is a time-honored theme in the humanities. The fact that Roth uses more explicit words than Samuel Butler and evokes the culture and mania of late 20th century America does not mean he is not dealing – frequently brilliantly in a literary sense – with many of the same concerns.

James Smith says:

Criticising an artist for being self-absorbed! The horror, the horror!!!
(of course it goes with out saying that an artist should never deal explicitly with sexual issues or organs).
What a prissy and idiotic piece of “criticism.”

Avi Bernstein says:

Bakhtin is perhaps the antidote to this moralism: “Laughter has the remarkable power of making an object come up close, of drawing it into a zone of crude contact where one can finger it familiarly on all sides, turn it upside down, inside out, peer at it from above and below, break open its external shell, look into its center, doubt it, take it apart, dismember it, lay it bare and expose it, examine it freely and experiment. Laughter demolishes fear and piety…clearing the ground for an absolutely free investigation…”
Overcome your fear, Leil. Ad Meah v’Esrim, Phillip

miha ahronovitz says:

I like what Liel writes, but this is not his best. ” … make sure that we fall on the right side in the eternal struggle between the heart and the groin” is utter platitude written by a student during an English exam without studying before. It could be applied to Woody Allen, Freud, Casanova and Michelangelo. But, Liel wrote this about Phillip Roth. That’s OK with me

There is nothing more right on about Roth than his obsession with his cock. Have you not noticed-ALL men are!

Liel seesms to have stopped reading Roth after POrtnoy.

Even in POrtnoy ROth was being ironic. He did not endorse his characters vie on life.

If the novel made AMerican Jewa uncomfortable it was because he made many of us face up to our fears, our insecurities, and our jealous resentments of Israeli Jews

To understand ROth you need to read everything he wrote after “COunterlife” especially his magnificent trilogy.

I have a feeling that not many posters have read much of Roth.

Btw: I am not a fan of Roth I Just think that he deserves better than what was written here.

Almost all of the previous commentaries bring interesting perspectives to the Liebowitz column and to Roth’s work…I agree wholeheartedly with the wish that the work of the last 15 years had been addressed as well…”…second or third tier…”,My Foot…

Corey Fischer says:

This thread can boast some of the more intelligent posts seen in these parts. Good for Liel for provoking readers to lay on us, for example, Rukeyser and Bakhtin.

Martin Walker says:

I would like to know where Walt Whitman regards sexual urges as selfish. And exactly how does Emily Dickinson’s “hermit existence” exemplify Portnoy’s Complaint? Neither of these two writers says anything about the “solipsistic fog that enshrouds us all” – and a good thing too, because it just doesn’t exist. American society is a good example: everybody is continually prescribing how others should live. This is not solipsism; perhaps you do not know what it means?

Jerry S says:

Philip Roth may be considered a great writer, but to me he is a miserable person. I was present back in the ’60s at an “Ethnic Writers Symposium” featuring Pietro DiDonato, Ralph Ellison and Mr. Roth. Roth was asked directly by the moderator that if were writing in the ’30s and if he knew in advance that his negative descriptions of Jews would cause their deaths by the Nazis, would Roth modify his novels. The answer: NO, his art is his art and can’t be changed.

I was stunned along with the more than 1,000 attendees at the Yeshiva University event. In the 50 years since, I don’t think he’s mellowed and my opinion of him hasn’t changed either.

You’re a 9th generation Israeli who wrote an article about an author who speaks directly to the id of an American Jew.

That’s why you can comfortably write, “…you’d be lucky to see much past New Jersey.”

The article is great, but it shouldn’t have been written by you. It’s at a disservice to Roth.

I wouldn’t have written the same of Amos Oz and said, “…You’d be lucky to see much past some little stretch of desert in the Middle East.”

Heliete says:

Wow! This is the kind of thought that favors censorship in facebook. So, non hypocritical Western thoughts about sex, women, social problems, are now equal to lack of civility & responsibility? It looks like an evangelist preaching morality to addicts…

Charlie says:

I’ve read all of Roth’s works but, until now, none of the critical literature on him. I find his books utterly engrossing, intellectually challenging, emotionally moving, sometimes hysterically funny, chock-full of insights into the human condition, and astonishingly well written. Say what you will, but the man has a terrific imagination and writes great stories.


Your reading of Roth shows a real lack of imagination and a real misunderstanding of his work. Instead of working through his large body of work and fairly highlighting its many themes that reach beyond sex, you set up a caricature of Roth, a straw man truly, which you then accuse and dismiss. What a joke. How stupid and shallow.


Ronald Pies says:

Sexuality in Roth’s work is not simply narcissism; it is a kind of talisman Roth uses to summon the “darker powers” and the yetzer hara–which is understood as both the
“evil impulse” and the “creative drive.” In this, Roth is not far from the spirit of I.B. Singer. More broadly, Roth summons the Universal by allowing himself (and the reader)to indulge in the painfully personal.

Ronald Pies

Bhollis says:

Read American Pastoral. I’m sure there’s some sex in there, and it definitely takes place (mostly) in NJ, but it’s an American masterpiece.

eric silverman says:


What do you want? Roth’s an elegy writer. Zuckerman was flawed, and America was his failed tableau, and now he’s gone gentle into the night (No Exit Ghost).

But he (Roth) doesn’t speak for mine or your generation. His audience is aging Jewish suburbanites and alter kakers living in Florida. We who’ve studied Roth know him as a living relic. American Pastoral is his masterwork.

Of course, as with Seymour Levov and Mickey Sabbath, all of Roth’s characters are manifestations of him. All fictive creation bears resemblance to its creator.

Roth doesn’t speak to you? Then find your own axe to grind, be your generation’s voice. Stop hocking us about Roth.

And while you’re at it, learn some fucking manners, young man.

This author destroys her own credibility by making it clear that she doesn’t know the difference between The Monkey and The Pumpkin, and doesn’t know that Alex Portnoy was never married. I wish, if someone were to criticize Roth, that she’d bother to read the material.

I haven’t read the Roth novels that you refer to here. I have read “The Nemesis” and “Everyman” though and they do not fit your analysis at all. The books have very little to do with sex. I wonder if you could include these in your assessment of Roth’s work…

Letty Cottin Pogrebin says:

Thanks for this splendid piece of literary analysis, Liel. I read Roth for his language, the lush, meandering, convoluted, yet somehow believable dialogue in which his characters engage one another on topical issues. But ultimately the sexism and solipsism turns me off. You’ve nailed the problem beautifully.

Oh how easy it is to pick the scenes of the prick and call them evil.
Liel, please, I expected more from you than to use two derivations of the word “solipsism” in one essay. Really?
Why don’t you focus on the liver instead of the complex relationships between mother and son; or better yet, between father and son.
I suppose “American Pastoral” is just more mental masturbation, too, void of any intellectualisms.
Yes, let’s remove Roth from the canon and call it a day because surely, you and your shallow reading have proven Roth a hack.
Should we ban Woody Allen too?


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