Only after becoming a novelist myself did I understand my discomfort. Philip Roth is celebrated for bringing my family’s tiny slice of the world into the American pantheon, widening the literary canon to include American Jews. It is hardly news to point out that he accomplished this feat at the expense of Jewish women.
.. Roth’s three favorite topics — Jews, women and New Jersey — all remain socially acceptable targets of irrational public mockery, and Roth was a virtuoso at mocking the combination of all three.
.. The problem is literary: these caricatures reveal a lack of not only empathy, but curiosity.
.. Shakespeare bothered to give the hated Jewish moneylender Shylock a point of view; Mark Twain bothered to imagine emotions for the runaway slave Jim. Both portrayals still reflected popular prejudice, often horribly so. But they also included a glimmer of humanity beyond it, revealing the artists’ curiosity about lives they could only imagine.
.. His strength lay in those brilliantly rendered characters and voices like his. His weakness was that those voices denigrated just about everyone else.
.. how many of these women are, after all, precisely the people who made Philip Roth’s success possible. The Jewish New Jersey women I know are talented professionals in every field, and often in those two thankless professions that Roth quite likely required to thrive: teachers and therapists.
.. literature means little; the shared humanity that great literature inspires matters even less. What endures, sadly, is Roth’s lack of imagination, the unempathetic and incurious caricaturing of others that he turned into a virtue — and which now defines much of American public life.
.. we’re still talking about Roth, just like his works taught us to do. Yet in the years to come, the real meaning of his work will emerge not in how we judge Roth, but in how we judge ourselves.