ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945
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The American Novel Since 1945
ENGL 291 - Lecture 20 - Philip Roth, The Human Stain (cont.)
Chapter 1. Observing Local Bookshops: Patterns of Display and Absence [00:00:00]
Professor Amy Hungerford: Today I’m going to talk about censorship in the United States since 1945, in the period that we’re studying, and I’m going to connect that with The Human Stain and some of my general thoughts about Roth’s work at the very end of lecture. So, I’ll give you a little bit of history and then a little bit of meditation on Roth. I asked you, for today, to go around to the various bookstores in New Haven, choose one and go, and observe what you saw there. And in particular I asked you to think about what you are not seeing there. So, does anyone want to tell me what they saw on their little observation trip? What did you observe? Yes.
Student: I went to Labyrinth, and they had a ton of history, historiography, cultural studies, all in the front, that seemed very deliberately diverse.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Diverse in what way?
Student: Diverse, culturally, as far as the history books that I looked at. They ranged anything from Germany during the Weimar Republic, to the history of tragedy, to death in the Atlantic slave trade, to all sorts of other things, though mainly European. What was not there, which I found interesting, which I looked for specifically, because I thought it might not be there, was Mein Kampf.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Did you look back in the stacks too? Uh huh.
Student: Yeah, I looked in the stacks. I didn’t see it there, or in the library at all, so I guess they don’t support Hitler, which I approve of.
Professor Amy Hungerford: You approve of Mein Kampf not being in Labyrinth bookstore.
Student: I approve of not supporting Hitler, I guess, Mein Kampf…
Professor Amy Hungerford: Very good. Okay. What else? What else did people notice? What did you notice about the bookstore? Yes.
Student: There is a table that has works by Yale graduates.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Which bookstore did you go to?
Student: Barnes and Noble. Yeah, so just clearly trying to sell to the market they know.
Professor Amy Hungerford: By Yale graduates. But here’s a question: not by Yale professors?
Student: I’m not sure.
Professor Amy Hungerford: It’s a significant difference. What else did you notice? Yes. Local market. What else did you notice? Someone–Yes, Eli.
Student: I guess that I really haven’t thought about this this much, but how much of a decision it is to decide what kind of shelf the book goes in, like history versus philosophy, and I guess it’s probably the publishers who do that, or, I don’t know, but–
Professor Amy Hungerford: Well, this is a really important question: where to shelve the book. Now, it’s not just about categories, although it is partly about categories, what subject matter does a book belong to; it’s also about what kind of shelf, physically. So those tables that we’re thinking about in Labyrinth, with that array of literature, who chose that? Does anyone know who chose that literature to put on that table? I can tell you in a minute. One question is: who chose that? Now, those tables are in Barnes and Noble, too. So, you walk into the bookstore on the ground level, and there are all those tables, and the stacks go up really high. There are all these elaborate ways of getting books’ covers to face you. Okay. Then there are all the stacks and shelves up on the upper level, and those books are interspersed with smaller displays.
So, if you go up there, you’ll begin to see some very interesting things. There’s a little table, for example, up on the right. Maybe you noticed this, right as you come up the stairs in Barnes and Noble, and it’s promoted as “urban literature.” Well, in my experience, having seen it over the years, it’s really just code for black writers, somehow, so it’s all these books about the black history of New Haven, or whatever. So, you have these little tables around.
Now, the big tables in front of Barnes and Noble, who chooses what goes on there? That space is bought and paid for by publishers, bought and paid for. It’s part of the contract with the publisher to stock that book that it be displayed in certain ways. You know those nice discounts that you get, 20% off the New York Times bestseller books when they’re in hardback? Those are possible at Barnes and Noble because of the huge buying power of that bookstore. So, they buy in huge volume. Now, a store like Labyrinth or its predecessor, Book Haven, wasn’t able to have that kind of volume in sales, and so they couldn’t negotiate with a publisher that sort of discount. So, that means that a smaller bookstore, because of its smaller buying power, can’t provide a competitive price in a market where Barnes and Noble is right next door.
Now, there were ways that independent bookstores try to compensate for that, especially in this market, by giving discounts to faculty members stocking their books at the bookstore. This is somewhat controversial, although it’s Barnes and Noble that has tried to make it controversial by bringing it up with the university and saying, “Now, isn’t this a kind of bribery?” But that’s the way that a store like Labyrinth, or like Book Haven before it, was able to try to be price competitive among people it knew wanted to buy from them, those professors who stock their book at an independent bookstore.
So, back to this question of who decides what’s on the table: at Labyrinth I went in, and I said, “Who decides what’s on this table?” And they said, “Oh, she’s over there,” and I went and talked to her and I said, “How do you decide what’s on the table?” She said, “Well, you know, I had a good general education as a young person, and I kind of know who’s who in the intellectual circles in Europe and in the United States. And so I browse the lists, and I talk to sales reps when they come in, and I read, and I look at what certain courses are stocking, and I see what people are reading on campus, and then I decide.” That’s really different from that space being bought and paid for by a publisher as part of a marketing agreement. Those tables are very powerful, for browsers, in shaping what browsers might possibly buy, or think about, when they come in to a bookstore.
So, that space is particularly key to a bookstore’s presence, culturally, in the community. And Sarah’s point, about the Yale graduates on the bookshelf: that is a nod to Barnes and Noble’s immediate context. So, there is that local marketing piece.
But, think about this. There are just a few fiction buyers who work with publishers to decide what novels will end up in Barnes and Noble. So, writers, when they’re thinking about, “can I sell my book?” instead of thinking, “I wonder if I can impress the owner of the Seminary Co-op in Hyde Park in Chicago,”–a very famous, huge, wonderful bookstore, not a chain–instead of saying, “I want to sell my book in Chicago. It’s set there, and maybe it’ll be appealing. I wonder if I can impress the owner of that bookstore,” and having a strategy that addresses those kinds of individual circumstances in different spaces– Powell’s in Seattle, Labyrinth in New York–they have to say, “I wonder if I can impress the buy from Barnes and Noble.” So, instead of many people making that decision about whether a novel is worthy of being promoted, it’s one person. That person becomes extremely powerful in shaping what literary texts reach us, what comes to our attention through the bookstore.
Now, have you ever wondered, as you’re driving down the street, why there might be a Dunkin’ Donuts here, and a Dunkin’ Donuts just two blocks away? Have you ever noticed that? There are various stores that you’ll see this: gas stations sometimes, fast food restaurants, sometimes Wal-Mart. Bookstores are another that you will sometimes see this. Why is that? Well, what they’re doing is competing in an overwhelming way with another store in that market. Usually this happens when they’re trying to drive another store out of business. So, they’re a big enough chain, they can absorb losses from an unproductive second store to saturate a market, and then they can absorb the closing of that second store once the competitor has been driven out of business. So that’s why that market saturation happens. It’s not because they think it’s going to be profitable, that there’s another hundred-percent increase when they add that second store one block over. It’s all about market saturation. It’s getting it as close to a hundred percent as possible. So, those kinds of tactics are possible for chain stores, and they are not possible for independent bookstores. And this is how many independent bookstores have been taken off the map in our cities and in the suburbs.
So, this is one way that censorship comes to us: not in that old-fashioned way of censorship laws, but in a new way, market censorship. This has always been part of how things work in a capitalist economy. It’s true that in the past literary enterprises–be they selling books or writing books or publishing books–had to make a profit in order to stay afloat. But the way that profit was made has changed from the early twentieth century until this point, and I’m going to say more about that. So, just by going in to the bookstore, I want you to think about–the next time you go in, think about how things are being presented to you. Now, how many of you get most of the books you buy–not for classes…well, let’s just ask this, blanket, and then I’ll break it down–how many of you get most of the books you buy from a bookstore? Still quite a few of you. How many of you get them mostly over the internet? Okay, not a majority. Taking out classes, books you buy for pleasure, your own decision to buy them, how many of you are still buying those in bookstores? Okay, actually a lot of you. So, that really, even, tips the scale in favor of bookstores, so that’s interesting to me. I wasn’t sure what you would say. That suggests that bookstores are still powerful purveyors of culture; they still shape what you think about and what you read. It’s browsing, or maybe that you’ve read about something, and you go looking for it, that brings you in to the bookstore.
Chapter 2. The History of Legal Censorship in the United States [00:12:28]
Censorship does have a legal history in this part of the century. And so now I want to just give you a little rundown of that. So, this [a slide reading “Censorship and Censure”] is actually a title of a chapter of a book that I will be writing on the post-45 novel, and I’m going to have this as the last chapter of that book. The reason for that is that censorship and what I’m calling censure–that’s the public outcry against literature, even not on legal grounds–is a way for the culture to speak back to the literary. So, I spend a lot of time in this class, and in my teaching in general, and in my writing, talking about what books say to us. But what do we say back to those books as a society? Well, censorship and its companion, censure, do a lot of that talking back. So, there are two sides of access to literature. I’ve just been talking a little bit about market constraints on what can be published and read, and now I’m going to talk a little bit about legal constraints. I’m going to get back to the market constraints in a little while.
Since the early twentieth century, a lot of the legal constraints on publishing and distributing literature have eased. In the 1870s, the Comstock laws in the United States aimed to regulate the use of the mails for the dissemination of obscene materials. These laws were used in 1914 to indict Margaret Sanger for sending information about contraception across state lines, and she had to flee, and she left the country to protect herself. So, just the description of how contraception worked was a violation of the Comstock laws; so of course we’re happily out of that moment. In 1933, for literature there was a major decision by Judge Woolsey declaring that James Joyce’s Ulysses was not obscene. Often censorship in literature would have to do with the import of literature into the United States. So, this is sort of on the same logic as the Comstock laws. The Comstock laws regulate the traveling of obscene literature across state lines. Customs regulations regulated obscenity coming in to the United States.
Why is obscenity important? Well, obscenity is largely recognized by legal scholars as not being protected by the Fourteenth Amendment; it is not protected speech. So, that’s why it was important for someone who wanted to keep Ulysses out of American hands to call it obscene. Now, it’s very interesting to read what Woolsey says about Ulysses. It just shows you how the learned reading of literature comes to have a legal impact in the world. So, this is Woolsey on Joyce:
He’s talking about the stream-of-consciousness method of narration in Ulysses. He shows how each of these impressions affects the life and the behavior of the character which he is describing, and I’m going to skip down. He goes on to detail more about Joyce’s technique: “It is because Joyce has been loyal to his technique and has not funked its necessary implications, but has honestly attempted to tell fully what his characters think about, that he has been the subject of so many attacks, and that his purpose has been so often misunderstood and misrepresented.” So, here, Woolsey takes a very serious view of Joyce’s artistic project, and he takes as the mark of its success what he calls the loyalty of Joyce to that project, of showing exactly what characters think in their subconscious associations, as those rise into consciousness and into language. That principle is furthered in the United States in 1957 with a case called Roth.
It’s Roth v. United States, and in this case Woolsey’s approach to the literary is enshrined in American law, affirmed as a precedent. So, according to the Roth case, something can be judged obscene only if it meets three conditions, and those are these: The books’ descriptions of nudity or sex must go beyond the limits of taste established by community standards. So that phrase, “community standards,” will become very important in later law, and I’ll mention how in a minute. “It must not appeal to the interests of the average adult.” So, you have to be really aberrant in order to meet this standard; it can’t appeal to the interests of the average adult. That’s what makes it obscene, so–I don’t know–necrophilia, maybe that counts. And lastly–this is the kicker–it must have no redeeming social or literary value whatsoever. That means if you can prove just that one, you’re safe. So, no matter what it is, even if it is necrophilia, if you can prove that it has literary value it cannot be obscene.
And so this particular standard comes in to play when Allen Ginsberg’s Howl goes on trial in–I think it’s 1959–it goes on trial. Similarly, a customs case and a case about selling the book: it was bought at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, and the poor sales clerk was indicted for selling it, and also the bookstore was indicted for importing it. It had been published in Europe. All they had to do in that trial, and it’s very funny to read the transcript, is to prove that Ginsberg in Howl was doing anything remotely resembling literary work. And it’s very funny to see people trying to argue that he was not. So, it’s not enough to say that he uses the word “cock,” for example, in that poem; that’s not enough. And the prosecutor tries to make the case on the basis of individual words, and then you see them having these hilarious conversations about how individual words work in metaphors and how they mean different things. This standard really saves literature from any kind of continuing legal censorship.
But, there are other ways of producing censorship; that “community standards” comes to be a problem in, for example, textbook design. So, there are these huge markets in public schools in Florida and Texas and California, and so textbook publishers have to appeal to the community standards of those huge, powerful markets, and that has an impact on what’s available to school systems all over the country. So, there is a way that those community standards, while in the Roth case they’re redeeming–they help to make the case against censorship, against a too-wide definition of obscenity–it does have an impact in other ways in the opposite direction. Since the 1990s, in the wake of these changes, libraries have become the primary place where legal cases are based. So, in 1982 the school board of Long Island, in Island Trees, Long Island, tries to remove, or actually does remove Black Boy, Slaughterhouse 5, and various other sort of books of the 1960s, mainly about politics, mostly has them removed from the school library. And a suit is brought against that school system for doing that.
The decision in that case affirms that even though public school systems are within their rights in the context of the classroom to restrict what is on the syllabi of their teachers, that the school library represents what they call a “special environment.” The special environment is a place of voluntary study; it is a place where the Fourteenth Amendment cannot be suspended. And as they say, sort of poetically, students do not leave their rights at the school door. And so school libraries can’t be regulated in that way. But these things come up over and over, and what’s interesting about that particular case is that the objection was that these books were anti-American. How far have we come since Black Boy had to be truncated? Not that far, in certain sectors of the country, in certain ways of thinking. Black Boy was cut in half because it didn’t seem like a good reflection on America. It’s still a problem for some books in being accepted and read.
Chapter 3. New Forms of Censorship: The Influence of the Market [00:23:43]
So, I began to talk about market constraints, and I want to just say a little bit more about that and how it affects the writing of literature and the publishing, even before you arrive at the bookstore. Traditional publishing has undergone a huge consolidation since the 1980s. So, there are large multinational corporations that have bought up publishers. The one signal example of this is when Bertelsmann, a German company, bought up Pantheon Books. This is written about in a book. Now I’m forgetting the name of it. It’ll come to me. One of the Pantheon editors led a revolt when this happened. It became clear that Bertelsmann was going to impose a new standard of profitability on the lists in Pantheon’s portfolio. So it used to be in old-time publishing, sort of mid century publishing and up to the 1980s, that the list, a literature list (and that’s the list of books that any publisher publishes), the list should be profitable. That does not mean that every single item on that list will be profitable. So editors in the old-time mode could work with writers who they found to be difficult and interesting, path breaking, unusual, not catering to what was popular. They could work with writers and cultivate them and they knew that they were taking on a book–say it’s a collection of short stories; these are notoriously hard to sell–they were taking on a book that was not going to make a profit. But then they would also take on The Joy of Cooking–or The Joy of Sex, since it’s censorship day–and they knew that the profit from a popular book could help to carry and balance those less profitable books, or not-at-all-profitable books, that they had on the list. So, there was a management of lists that could be tilted to allow different kinds of books into the public domain.
When publishers were taken over by multinational corporations that were very distant from the interaction between an editor and a writer, they looked at the numbers and they started to demand that every book have its profit-and-loss analysis and that a very strict regulation be followed in ensuring that all titles were going to make a profit. That’s a very different standard, and it had a huge impact on what kind of latitude editors had in working with writers who they thought might be a little unusual or not so marketable. At the same time, agents began to have a role in the publishing business. In the 1950s, when editors were encouraging literary writers directly, they had a much more collaborative relationship with writers. But as profit became more important writers needed to turn to someone else who wasn’t going to pressure them to follow the market, and agents came to have a role. Now, it’s interesting. There is yet a third role that has just begun to emerge in this structure, and that is of the coach, the writing coach: so you can now pay big bucks, if you’re a writer, to have someone who will call you up every week and say, “Hey, how’s the book going? Let’s talk about your ideas. Are you writing today?” It used to be that agents took that kind of active role. Well, agents are very busy now, with their clients selling movie rights and such things. Movie rights are where a lot of the profit in a book sale come from. So, agents began to be what the old-time editor was, and I think we have yet to see whether coaches become what agents used to be in turn. But, as profitability becomes more and more of an issue in selling a book to a publisher, there is an ever ongoing search for that person who will be the ally of the literary in this process.
I’ve talked about the consolidation in book selling, the rise of the chains, and I’ve also talked about those financial relationships between book sellers and publishers, were space is bought. They also have incentives that publishers give, sometimes give money for readings to be held at a bookstore. So, sometimes those things are bought also, those kinds of events, promotional events. There is, of course, this whole context of the rise of the internet, and all kinds of competition from the film industry, other media. Market constraints are sometimes paradoxically produced by that overload that we get from the internet. So what that means is the culture is finding new arbiters. So, you have this huge volume of information and cultural offerings being given to you. In that welter of information we all look to some arbiter to tell us, “How do I sort this out?” Nobody has the time to read all the blogs and decide which one they’re going to read regularly. So you might get a link from someone else’s page, someone you are friends with, someone you admire, a writer you’ve seen elsewhere. You might read certain print publications and from there follow them in to the internet, into cyberspace. Most books now come with a web address somewhere on them. A lot of films do; most films do. This is still in a period of development. How profit gets connected up with those arbiters isn’t yet very clear, so companies are experimenting with paying for placements, like when you do the Google search and there are certain Google-sponsored links at the top. That’s like having the space in the front of your store bought and paid for. So you think that you’re getting–or, I think we all know that those are sponsored links, now, but at the beginning people didn’t really quite know that, so it looked like you were getting– the product of a disinterested electronic search, but in fact you were getting a promotion. So the internet experiments with all kinds of both new and tried and true ways of using money to create prominence among the welter of information.
Chapter 4. The Other Side of the Coin: Intellectual Property and Infinite Access in the Digital Age [00:31:41]
Then there is another rising problem in question, and that is of intellectual property and access as books are digitized. So, I don’t know if you have heard of the Google Book Project, and also all the digital libraries initiatives. There are various ones, but the Google Book Project is digitizing with a special technology. People think it’s probably a robotic technology–it’s kept secret–for scanning books that are in the public domain, and they’ve made agreements with lots of university libraries including Stanford, Cornell, Michigan, to digitize all the books that are beyond the copyright that are in their collections to make a huge digital library. And the dream is that this will be a sort of bonanza of access. It’ll be searchable. It’ll be–well, maybe–free. It’ll be accessible all over the world. So, there is a dream here that’s very noble. Publishers and writers’ groups, unions, are very worried about copyright infringement, because Google has stepped over the line and is interested in pushing the envelope into scanning copyrighted material. So, what has started to happen is that individual publishers have made deals with Google to let Google digitize their list for a fee. But, see, now that money starts to come into this arrangement, it starts to look less like free access and more like an access that is, once again, shaped by these financial considerations. It’s not at all clear how the nobility of the project and the financial context are going to work themselves out, and it’s not at all clear yet what the general approach of educational institutions will be towards this. Yale has not signed onto this, for example, so some universities have; some haven’t. These are huge, looming questions that will impact what we get to see as literature, how much access we have among the vast choices that the internet makes available to us.
I want to just mention one more thing, and that’s about internationalization. One thing that you didn’t probably see at the bookstore is fiction in translation, contemporary fiction in translation, notoriously impossible to sell. There is a press called the New Press that was founded after some of the Pantheon editors left and they founded this nonprofit press. That is the only kind of fiction that the New Press publishes, contemporary fiction in translation, because they knew that only a nonprofit press could publish this. It will never sell. One of the objections to the Google Book Project is that the vast majority of its texts are in English, and it seems to present an English-centric vision of the world’s knowledge, ‘cause it does have pretensions to be the repository of the world’s knowledge.
In the reception of literature there are other forces, and here’s when we start to move in to the realm of The Human Stain. In the 1990s, there was a very lively and often acrimonious debate in academia and among intellectual commentators about whether literature was the purveyor of ideology, political ideology. So, the question is, does literature have a message that it’s trying to tell us? And one way to think about this is to think about English 125, major British poets, the picture of what the old-fashioned canon might look like. It’s all white guys. I think there might be one woman that you can put on the syllabus in the Spring, a modern poet. You can probably teach Bishop. I think people do teach Bishop in the second term of English 125. Did those poets represent the communication of an ideology? Because a lot of contemporary fiction became the object of contention: along with these very traditional syllabi, are you going to include Toni Morrison on your syllabus? Well, this is no longer controversial. She’s such an overwhelmingly powerful author, at this time, by the sheer quality of her work, but early in her career it would have been a question.
One of the striking things, of course, about American fiction in the second half of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, is the demographic really does change. Writers of color are much more prominent; there are many more points of view present in that canon. So, is literature sociological? Does it speak to society, or is it an aesthetic object, something that we should understand as part of the history of an art form? Do you have to choose between these two? And I cite here what became an incredibly important book. It’s really a wonderful book by actually a Yale graduate, John Guillory. The title is Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation, published right at the height of the culture wars, of the canon wars. In it, he argues that in the mid twentieth century, literature was a kind of social elite good, and that the aesthetic, if it had an ideology, it was an ideology of bourgeois privilege. So, it wasn’t that the content of particular poems would be communicating something about an elite bourgeois ideology, but rather that the very act of being in the institution where you would study such a thing (at Yale, in English 125) that was the repository of the elite power of these texts. So it had much more to do with institutions than it did about the content of any particular literary work. And it makes some very persuasive readings of canonical poems that demonstrate the undecidability of their ideology, or the way that they resist how they’ve been cast, how those poems have been cast by critics.
There are also ways that novels were received and complained about that become part of this picture. So, we’ve talked about Black Boy. I mentioned how controversial Woman Warrior was because of its impurity as a Chinese text. Toni Morrison became a real advocate of writing by women of color, in particular, and also as a literary critic she mounted an argument about how whiteness functions as a central part of the traditional canon of literature. And she wrote Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination in 1992, a very influential text. Internationally, we had the phenomenon of Salman Rushdie’s persecution, the fatwa issued against him by the Ayatollah Khomeini after the publication of The Satanic Verses, for its depiction of Islam. That kind of persecution becomes a feature of this more internationalized debate about what is okay to say, especially about religions, and then of course we have the Danish cartoon episode, with the cartoons of Muhammad that are now seemingly…it’s resurgent. There is another question about a film about Muhammad’s life, I believe it is. Then there is Roth’s work, and here’s where I just want to meditate for a minute on Roth.
Philip Roth’s work has been defined by these kinds of objections, that censure that I was talking about. He was very widely acclaimed in 1960 when Goodbye, Columbus won the National Book Award. Goodbye, Columbus is a set of stories mostly about young Jewish protagonists living in a Jewish context in Jewish communities in Newark or in New York. It included a story called “The Conversion of the Jews” in which a young boy (actually, well, a little older than young boy, maybe he’s a teenager), Ozzie Freedman, becomes extremely agitated because all his questions to his family and to his rabbi about Christianity are dismissed; he finally comes to be punished for asking these kinds of questions. So, Ozzie stages his revolt by climbing to the top of the synagogue roof and threatening to jump off if his family, all the assembled students from his Hebrew school, and the rabbi, won’t kneel down and pray to Jesus, which of course they do because he’s about to jump off. This story was quite controversial, as you might imagine, so there was a taste of Roth’s vexed relationship to Jewish community in that story. So, it was all about how a hidebound Jewish community was preventing and circumscribing the curiosity of a young American boy, and it really highlighted Ozzie’s Americanness. And Roth has always emphasized that about himself: He’s an American writer.
Like Saul Bellow before him–Saul Bellow had been his mentor and teacher for a brief time at the University of Chicago–Bellow insisted on bringing into American literature the voice and sensibility of an immigrant Jewish family. Bellow was from a Russian Jewish family that immigrated to Canada in the early twentieth century. Bellow was told he would neve–because of his heritage, when he was at the University of Chicago–he was told he would never have the ear for language that would allow him to write beautifully, because of his linguistic background and because he was Jewish. Well, Bellow pioneered the way of bringing in a particularly Jewish and European notion of literature and a sensibility about the body that could enter American literature and change it from its either WASPish or southern genteel quality. And, certainly, this was a very powerful current, and Roth is the continuation of that current in American letters.
Roth comes out in 1969 with Portnoy’s Complaint. Portnoy is quite a novel. It’s really all about masturbation. It’s about Alex Portnoy jacking off in the bathroom to every possible provocative thought he can have, and it’s told as if to Alex’s psychiatrist in a sort of ranting, over-the-top style, very explicit. This got Roth into big trouble, partly because Alex lives in a very tight-knit Jewish family, and this enters into the whole story of his obsession with sex. Irving Howe, a very prominent Jewish literary critic, public intellectual, wrote a famous essay in 1972 called “Philip Roth Reconsidered.” And he basically said that the adulation given to Roth was entirely inappropriate–he now saw on reflection, now that he had read Portnoy’s Complaint–because Roth had an unfocused hostility towards the Jewish community. This enraged Roth. That rage fueled huge portions of his career. When, in The Human Stain, Roth has Coleman Silk say, “All of Western literature began with a quarrel, the wrath of Achilles,” in a certain way he is describing his own origin as a writer.
Now, if you’ll go with me: Do you have just five minutes? I want to get to one last point. Roth, in case you haven’t noticed, is a very misogynist writer. Did you notice? Hard to miss that. Why do I like Roth? In this context where writers are taken to task for their offensiveness on cultural grounds, on gender grounds, on the grounds of identification, how can you like someone who has this major flaw, who seems to see all women as sexual objects, who is unembarrassed about saying his writing is about a man’s life, the life of men; it’s not about the life of women? So, why do I like Roth? This has actually baffled me for years. Why doesn’t it bother me? There are parts in The Human Stain that really are quite amazingly objectionable. My favorite is the gift of the molestation. Do you remember this when they are talking about Faunia, and how great she is in bed, and what she is like at breakfast afterwards, and they speculate, Coleman and Nathan, that maybe that was the gift of her having been molested? Well, molestation is never a gift. If there is anything that comes from living through a hard life, it is not the gift of the molestation, but the gift of the person who survived it. This is insane.
Why do I still like Roth? Well, partly it’s that, like no one else, he can take me into a voice, seamlessly draw me in. Some of his ranting voices are more or less convincing. Some are more or less caricatured; of course the women’s are more caricatured than the men’s. Nevertheless, he can take me in there, and the way his sentences work are really sometimes just astonishingly beautiful. There is a part of The Human Stain that I particularly like, and you’ll get to it as you finish the novel for Monday, and that’s when he’s describing Coleman and Faunia at Tanglewood. So, just think about that when you read that, pause for a minute over that.
I think what it is ultimately is that I’m very moved by two things in Roth’s writing; that is the meditation on mortality and what goes along with that, I think: the focus on and the dignity of the body. There is a very Whitmanian sense to his understanding of sex and the body in all its complexity. I appreciate that. I am moved by that sense of the inaccessibility of the other person–this is from my lecture on Monday–the way you always get the other fellow’s life somehow wrong. That speaks to me about the difference between my consciousness and anyone I encounter in the world. That to me is profound and moving. It reminds me that, for all Roth’s linguistic energy and skill as a writer, there is still that great divide that language is trying to cross. And that’s what I appreciate about literature in general, that it’s that great attempt to cross that divide. I can overlook the misogyny for those things. Am I like Roth? Probably not, but that’s why I like him. I read to see what I’m not, not to see what I am, and so Roth’s very difference from me, his misogyny, is part of what allows me to feel that I am entering, however partially, however always in a compromised way, into the consciousness of another person through that beautiful, amazing medium of language. So, that’s why I like Roth, and I would encourage you to think about your own responses to the books that we’ve read together, think about what it means about you as a reader that you respond in certain ways. So we’ll pick this up on Monday; thank you for waiting.
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