In the nearly five and a half decades since Philip Roth published his first novel “Goodbye, Columbus,” his reputation for misogyny has become as fixed as his reputation for brilliance. The feminist writer Vivian Gornick is perhaps his fiercest critic; as she wrote in Harper’s in 2008, “If in Bellow misogyny was like seeping bile, in Roth it was lava pouring forth from a volcano.”
Though even those who believe Roth has a “woman problem” are often at pains to explain that it doesn’t bother them, the charge itself has stuck. “Roth’s female characters are not nearly as filled out as his male ones; sometimes his women amount to little more than bodies or, when ex-wives, walking mistakes,” novelist Lionel Shriver told The Independent in 2011. “I’m not that touchy about misogyny as long as it’s well-written misogyny.” In her 1990 New York Times review of “Deception,” author Fay Weldon wrote, “Roth is…old-fashioned about women. He investigates their mental and emotional processes as if they belonged to some entirely different species from his own, not merely to a separate gender…” And novelist Amanda Craig has said, “I have such mixed feelings about Roth…I hate his misogyny and hate always feeling worse at the end of his books than I did before I started them.”
My classmates in grad school seemed to view Roth as an old goat: embarrassingly lecherous, out-of-date and incapable of seeing any young woman, flesh-and-blood or fictional, as more than a walking pair of breasts. My professors, even those who clearly admired Roth, taught him almost apologetically, as if primed for attack.
I am a feminist. The kind who gives money to the National Abortion Federation and rants at cocktail parties about the wage gap and rape in the military. The kind who went to rallies as a teenager, refused to shave my legs, and wore a giant button to school that read “ASK ME ABOUT BIRTH CONTROL,” years before I’d had sex. I was earnest, concerned and self-important. I was also terrified of sex—or, more accurately, of pregnancy and disease—at the same time that I desperately wanted to have it. I didn’t have sex until I was 20 years old, at which point I realized that it was great fun and quickly shed most of my inhibitions.
I love women, and I’m generally put off by those who don’t. Other writers I admire are arguably better suited to my feminist identity: Virginia Woolf, Barbara Pym, Anita Brookner and Alice Munro, to name a few. Roth is the wild card in my library. He’s pungent and masculine and un-genteel. He might not have horrified Barbara Pym, but he certainly would have horrified her mild-mannered protagonists. So why do I find his novels so intriguing that I re-read them year after year? Why, when I finally met him at a lecture one day, was I moved to tears while shaking his hand?
Although, outwardly, we have little in common, I adore Roth because of the traits we do share: irreverence, contrarianism, preoccupation with sex, an eagerness to entertain and be entertained. I’ve been reading his books since I was 18, and, every time I do, I feel as if I’m reading the funniest and most poignant expression of the thoughts that have flashed through my own brain since adolescence.
I imagine these thoughts—about sex, love, family, mortality—parading across my forehead in giant capital letters, like a news ticker, and I picture Roth frantically scribbling them down before converting them into prose lovelier and more compulsively readable than any I could write. Whenever I read “Portnoy’s Complaint,” I’m struck by the feeling that the soul of an older, lascivious Jewish man from Newark has resurfaced in the body of a young, libidinous half-Jewish girl from Buffalo. Roth reappearing in the body of a young feminist: it’s like the punch line of a dirty joke he himself might tell.
Sex in Roth’s novels is joyful, vigorous and plentiful. Nobody describes the physical act of love—the sweat! the jumping blood! the animal glee!—or the human body, in youthful glory and aged decay, with more blunt precision and less flowery nonsense than Roth. In addition to page after page of sex, the delightfully smutty “Sabbath’s Theater” contains a two-and-a-half page description of a woman masturbating: “Tends to like to have some cloth between her hand and her pussy…The material turns her on; why that is she doesn’t quite know.” It’s pretty detailed and specific for a man who, many insist, knows nothing about women. What strikes me most is its focus on female sexual pleasure: it may be voyeuristic, but it’s still about a woman who is making herself come.
As a relatively young woman who bloomed late and quickly made up for lost time, I’ve always admired Roth’s sexual adventurism. Threesomes, the erotic properties of menstrual blood and urine, blow jobs in every conceivable position and circumstance—his characters are intrepid explorers of all things carnal (though they seem to draw the line at male homosexuality). Before reading Roth, I never imagined that it was possible to write about such things in “respectable” books, because I couldn’t imagine people respecting me if I wrote about them.
It’s always been my dream to become an author so respected that I could write whatever I wanted and still be taken seriously, even if what I wanted to write about was my sexual and romantic life. Unfortunately, this is still a far likelier scenario for men than for women.
There aren’t many well-known, well-thought-of women who write honestly and explicitly about sex (and even fewer for whom it is a primary subject). Anais Nin, Doris Lessing, Erica Jong, Wendy Wasserstein, Daphne Merkin, Mary Gordon and Mary Gaitskill are all who come to mind.
Sex and its attendant emotional experiences are a major part of most people’s lives. And Roth shed new light on these. He often got it right, but even when he wrote something that contradicted my own feelings and experiences, certain details—a tender or sexy moment between lovers, a line of dialogue, a bit of philosophy—always rang true to me.
I’ve never understood why those who criticize Roth on feminist grounds cannot imagine themselves as the protagonists of his novels. I identify with Roth’s heroes, just as I identify with Ernest Hemingway’s and a whole host of other male writers’ fictional alter egos. Rarely do I identify with the heroes’ wives, girlfriends or lovers. If I can see myself as the hero, why can’t Vivian Gornick?
As a group, women are certainly more vulnerable than men to sexual violence. We are likelier to contract an STD from a male partner than a man is to contract one from a female partner, and likelier to be denigrated for participating in sexual encounters for which men would be lauded. But I’ve always believed that our greater vulnerability doesn’t mean we’re better off not seeking adventures, sexual or otherwise. It’s this belief that allows me to enjoy Roth on Roth’s terms, and to imagine myself as Kepesh or Portnoy rather than Consuela or Mary Jane.
Roth and Allen and Mailer and Miller and Hemingway and scores of other celebrated men of arts and letters did not gather material by sitting at home and guarding their virtue. They went out; they got drunk; they got laid. They took stupid, unnecessary risks. And many of them ended up with hangovers and herpes and divorces. The price of experience is a battered ego, an unhealed heart and antibiotics. But isn’t it worth it for the stories?
Of Janie Wyatt, a minor character in “The Dying Animal,” Roth wrote, “A lot of the faculty frowned at the openness of her sexual behavior and equated it with stupidity. Even some of the boys—spoke of her as a slut one moment and then went off to bed with her the next. But she was neither stupid nor a slut.” This sounds to me less like a man who hates women than one who admires their moxie: “Janie…knew what she was doing. She stood in front of you…with her legs slightly apart…and her big, open confessional grin: this is what I am, this is what I do, if you don’t like it, it’s too bad.”
Janie is not the only of Roth’s female characters to be portrayed, glowingly, as sexually adventurous. “Sabbath’s Theater’s” Drenka is middle-aged, married, unglamorous—and a sexual dynamo who arouses both love and erotic obsession in a variety of men. Of “The Professor of Desire’s” Birgitta, Roth writes, “My God, she is bolder even than I imagined! How many such girls can there be in the world? She dares to do everything, and yet she is as sane as I am. Sane, clever, courageous, self-possessed—and wildly lascivious!” These women aren’t playthings; they’re powerhouses.
Some argue that these characters exist only to indulge the sexual fantasies of the male heroes. But I’ve never understood why heterosexual female characters whose desires coincide with those of their heterosexual male lovers are considered unrealistic. As a straight woman with a healthy libido, I appreciate Roth’s evident admiration for women with appetites.
It was reading all these books about sex as a hormone-addled adolescent that made me want to go out and have as much of it as possible with as many different types of people as I could. I craved experience, and, for me in my twenties, sexual experience was the easiest kind to acquire.
Beginning at 20, I was almost methodically promiscuous. I was Janie Wyatt and Birgitta and Kepesh rolled into one, and I was determined to try everything at least once.
First there was Harvard Boy, who I met during a summer internship in Washington, DC. One night after my housemates had gone to bed, he leaned in close and put his hand up my skirt. No one had ever done that to me before; his boldness was a turn-on. He had to teach me everything, because at that point I’d never done anything. “Hold it like a fork,” he said, sliding my hand onto his penis. This confused me, until he clarified: “No, not the way one holds a fork; the way you hold a fork. I’ve been watching you all summer, and you have this really weird, straight up-and-down Neanderthal grip.”
In college, I had a drunken threesome with my friend Cindy and the Laotian-American national guardsman she was dating during our junior year. The next morning I awoke to plum-colored nipples and dozens of quarter-sized hickeys dotting my breasts like chicken pox. The year I graduated, I picked up a guy my friends would later dub “not-British British guy” at a party. He had an English accent but turned out to be some other, unexpected nationality—I think it was Portuguese. We talked, briefly and drunkenly, in the kitchen, and left together. We groped each other in the backseat of a cab and had triumphant, giggling, tipsy sex on a half-deflated air mattress in my first apartment in New York. The next morning my chin and cheeks were bright red with stubble-burn, and I was relieved to find an open condom wrapper on the floor. We never exchanged names.
One March some friends and I rented a condo in Costa Rica and I seduced the cute Indian waiter who worked at the hotel next door. In grad school, I briefly dated a dirty-talking fiction writer whose sudden urgent growling (“Tell me you want my cock inside of you”) during our first sexual encounter scared me more than it turned me on. I also dated a guy I met at a Halloween party and dubbed the “Sexy Pirate,” despite his lack of a costume, because he wore a single gold earring in his left ear and I found him irresistible. He was a red-headed actor-turned-fiction-writer, on the short side but well-built, with broad, sculpted shoulders and tattoos encircling both arms. I liked the fact that he was 13 years older. He used to press up against me in stairwells and kiss me so urgently, pinning me against walls and door-frames but barely touching me otherwise, that I literally panted with desire.
I dated a preschool teacher and amateur painter who was 15 years my senior and had an African name, courtesy of his deceased father, who’d been a Black Panther. I dated an Indian-American soldier who’d done two tours of duty in Iraq. I dated a cat-obsessed, multiply tattooed union organizer, a handsome corporate lawyer, and an aspiring standup comedian who’d gone to college with my younger brother (and was three years younger than my brother). The comedian had a beautiful, slender, hairless body and a teen idol face. Within the span of several years, I went out with a militantly atheist vegan, a Catholic who was also a proud member of a bacon-of-the-month club, and a kosher-keeping Jew with a predilection for Holocaust jokes.
Why am I recounting these experiences? Because they’re funny and bittersweet. Because they made me who I am. Because it interests me to catalog them and I think it might interest a reader as well. Because I’ve enjoyed most of the sex I’ve had, and even the sex that I’ve regretted afterward felt good while I was having it. Having sex whenever I can with whomever I want, for as long as I want him and he wants me, is a right that I exercise freely and with relish. I’ve felt guilt, especially when I’ve slept with a “taken” man. But I’ve rarely felt shame. And for that I credit my early feminist identity—and my early reading of Roth. Misogynists try to shame women; Roth celebrates and worships our sexual power.
When men chronicle their youthful sexual adventures, they’re deemed honest, brave, and humorous. By contrast, women who describe their sexual lives in print with anything other than shame and regret (or at least chagrin) are seen as sluts with daddy issues, unstable attention-seekers, or vindictive shrews. As the critic Emily Nussbaum recently wrote of Wendy Wasserstein, Rona Jaffe and Mary McCarthy, “[their stories] got critiqued as icky, sticky memoir—score-settling, not art.”
I’ve seen this bias in reader response to my own work. Most of my graduate school classmates were women, but the men in my workshops didn’t approve when I wrote about sex or the female body. Maybe they also didn’t like my writing, apart from questions of sex and gender. But their comments weren’t literary in nature. One man wrote in the margins of a personal essay I submitted to a workshop that tampons disgusted him. When I published an essay about living near my ex on Nerve.com, a commenter wrote, in reference to a line in the essay, “If pubic [sic] shaming and vindictiveness is what the rest of your writing is like—and if that’s how you come across in person—then are you at all surprised the literary agent ‘suddenly lost interest’?” Another piece I wrote for Nerve earned mockery not from anonymous commenters, but from male friends of my brother’s, who harassed him for weeks by reading its sexiest passages aloud. “Your sister’s a slut,” one said.
While I didn’t enjoy being called a slut, the slur cemented my desire to keep writing about whatever I wanted to write about, even if it meant being insulted by strangers and acquaintances alike. Being a feminist means challenging cultural ideas about how women should behave. It’s not about imitating male behavior; it’s about claiming the right to behave like a human being. I identify with male protagonists not because I see myself as a man, but because I see myself as the hero of my own life.
I understand why many of my fellow feminists despise Roth. His public demeanor vis-a-vis feminism has been cantankerous and contemptuous. He reeks of that special blend of arrogance and entitlement only successful male authors seem to emit. But I think it’s unfair to say that he hates women. He is awed and fascinated by us. He is sexually obsessed with us. The worst I can discern in his better novels is a sort of bemused and mildly paternalistic regard.
After Roth was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2011, a feminist judge resigned from the award committee in protest, telling The Telegraph that Roth went “to the core” of her fellow (male) judges’ beings, “but he certainly doesn’t go to the core of mine.” Often there is a high degree of overlap between my opinions and those of feminists who resign in protest. But in this case, I experienced a rare divergence: although he is 50 years my senior and a man, Roth goes straight to my core.
Is the problem really that Roth doesn’t write women characters to Vivian Gornick’s satisfaction? Or is the problem that talented women who write about sex and exes get published and praised far less often than Philip Roth?
The Investment Banker lived in a huge, messy, ill-furnished apartment bordering Gramercy Park. We got together after work one day and he bought me three gin and tonics, which I drank quickly and on an empty stomach. He suggested that we go back to his place. I agreed. Two minutes after we entered his apartment, he pounced; soon we were ripping off our clothes and he was pushing me down on his bed. He grabbed a condom, jammed himself inside of me, and came immediately. Then he sat up and began tossing my clothes at me. “You have to get dressed now,” he said. “I have a dinner reservation downtown at 8. I’ll put you in a cab.”
I’ll never forget how confidently he hailed that cab or how authoritatively he instructed the driver to take me “wherever I wanted,” handing him two crisp twenty-dollar bills as he said it. Nor will I ever forget how stunned I was or how stupid and used I felt.
It was the worst sexual experience of my life, but it didn’t destroy me. The fact that it didn’t turn out how I’d hoped it would was a lesson worth learning. A misogynist would say I shouldn’t have been sleeping around in the first place; that I had only myself to blame for my hurt and humiliation. Roth is a sophisticate, not a misogynist—he knows that mistakes are our best teachers, and he believes that women and men alike should have the freedom to make them.
The cure for Roth’s “misogyny”—which in his case isn’t a hatred of women, so much as a less-than-perfect understanding—isn’t to avoid the kind of books that, according to him, he is no longer writing. It’s to do what Roth’s always suggested women should do: write and publish more books of our own. How can we expect male readers and writers to know how women really experience life and sex if we don’t tell them?