In The Human Stain, Philip Roth’s prescient 2000 novel about cancel culture, the American novelist wrote of a professor unfairly driven from his job after using racially insensitive language.
Now it may be Roth’s turn to be driven — posthumously — from the public sphere, as two new biographies shine a light on a life of sordid misbehavior.
The stories that emerge are almost as filthy as those that populate the pages of his novels and made him among the foulest and most famous American novelists of the late 20th century.
When it came to sex, Roth’s art imitated his life. “He was as sexually obsessed in real life as he was in literature,” said Ira Nadel, author of Philip Roth: A Counterlife.
According to Blake Bailey’s authorized Philip Roth: The Biography, Roth visited brothels in London and selected female students for an oversubscribed seminar based on their attractiveness. Bailey’s Roth chats up women in lifts (“easy as pie”) and as he gets older, they get younger. On other visits to London, he leaves his wife behind and cruises Curzon Street in Mayfair looking for Chinese prostitutes. “God, I’m fond of adultery,” he declares at one point.
Roth, who died in 2018 age 85, was a controversial figure when he was alive too, offending his fellow Jews in Goodbye, Columbus (1959), prudes in the relentless Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), and feminists in just about everything he wrote.
The stories that emerge are almost as filthy as those that populate the pages of his novels.
His divorce from the British actress Claire Bloom in 1995 was a literary sensation, particularly when Bloom wrote a memoir that depicted him as a misogynist and control freak.
The novelist’s death led to another reassessment of his work, with feminist writers criticizing his tendency to objectify, attack and deride female characters in his novels. “What Philip Roth didn’t know about women could fill a book,” wrote Dara Horn in The New York Times.
But with the publication of these new chronicles of sex and depravity, Roth could fall foul of increasingly censorious modern standards.
“I think we’re due another fight over Roth’s work,” said Sandra Newman, an American novelist. “People tend not to talk about [his misogyny], or excuse it with an embarrassed chuckle. It’s at the center of his work. I think he was saying things he believed.”
Newman believes contemporary audiences and critics will be less forgiving. “Looked at from the point of view of today, the books are on the wrong side of MeToo. They often have a central male who is a victim of cancel culture. You would think that we would be recontextualizing them.”
Though Roth was incensed by modern political correctness, he took great pains to secure his legacy, sacking one biographer and replacing him with Bailey. He also wrote a point-by-point rebuttal of Bloom’s memoir, though it is under legal embargo for several more years.
“He could not stop litigating the past,” said Nadel. “He wanted to control the story from the grave.” Nadel argues that Roth saw Bloom as the quintessential example of his betrayal by women, falling out with John Updike because his fellow novelist defended her. “It really did anger him deeply and he never got over it,” he said. “He wanted to get back at Claire Bloom and tell the true story: that’s who Philip Roth was.”
Meg Elison is another American author who is re-examining Roth. “You can’t deny this man’s a genius, he’s a fantastic writer,” said the California-based novelist. “But his misogyny infuses everything that he writes. It’s not the side dish, it’s the main dish. He is disgusted by his own attraction to women, which is why he writes so many of them as sex-crazed whores.”
She believes American literature should not shy away from reappraising Roth’s place in the pantheon. “We’re living in an age when we are tearing down statues,” she said. “Even relative to his peers Roth was misogynistic. He just seems to be rolling around in his id like a pig in shit.”
Bailey is more forgiving, and his book emphasizes the affection many of Roth’s female friends and lovers had for him. They include Lisa Halliday, whose novel Asymmetry is based in part on an affair she had with Roth when she was 23 and he was 69.
Will Roth face a posthumous cancellation? “You never know these days,” Bailey said. “But I think there will always be an audience for Roth’s work in certain quarters, and a non-audience in others. I hope my biography helps Roth’s image; though it doesn’t spare his lapses, it does portray him as a rather touching human being versus a label of whatever sort.”
As for Roth himself, we know more than enough to be sure how he would respond to such criticism.
“We leave a stain, we leave a trail, we leave our imprint. Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen — there’s no other way to be here,” he wrote in The Human Stain. “The truth about us is endless. As are the lies.”
Josh Glancy is the Washington bureau chief for The Sunday Times of London