In a New York Times essay, “What Philip Roth Didn’t Know About Women Could Fill a Book,” novelist Dara Horn criticizes Roth’s inability (or refusal?) to create complex female characters. She begins with her own remembered reaction, as a 15-year-old Short Hills, New Jersey, resident, to the novella Goodbye, Columbus:
The town, still leafy and affluent, felt familiar. What didn’t feel familiar was Brenda Patimkin, the Newark narrator’s love interest. Vain and vapid, Brenda, whose striving parents were among the first Jews in exclusive Short Hills, was the sort who had her nose “fixed” to fit in with her Harvard classmates.
Brenda, to Horn, failed as a character, not because Roth’s depiction of Jewish women is dated and at times offensive, but because she didn’t ring true: “The problem is literary: these caricatures reveal a lack of not only empathy, but curiosity.” After praising Shakespeare for at least considering Shylock’s perspective, she adds, “Philip Roth’s works are only curious about Philip Roth.”
Since Roth’s death last week, tributes, along with some misgivings, have flooded the Internet. It did not take the past few days’ output to convince me that for a young Jewish woman, Roth novels might be jarring. I’m 34 but began reading him as a teenager and felt that same mix other critics have described of being represented as an American Jew, yet profoundly ignored as a woman. Except, unlike for Horn, it wasn’t Goodbye, Columbus, with its “princess” cliché, that got to me. Yes, Brenda was uptight and weak-willed, afraid to sweat, and prepared to choose obeying her financially generous parents over having an adult sexual relationship with Neil, a young man not as posh as herself. But to my adolescent self, preoccupied with whether boys would like me, Portnoy’s Complaint was more disturbing. Much of the novel is devoted to Jewish women’s inadequacies, and to (white) non-Jewish women’s charms:
But the shikses, ah, the shikses are something else again. Between the smell of damp sawdust and wet wool in the overheated boathouse, and the sight of their fresh cold blond hair spilling out of their kerchiefs and caps, I am ecstatic.
A Jewish woman as a stuck-up love interest was one (tolerable) thing; the portrayal of us as sexual nonentities, something else.
Once I reached the part of the novel where Alex Portnoy is in Israel and can’t . . . perform in the presence of an Israeli Jewish woman, the point had already been made. Whatever it was, Jewish girls—girls like me—were lacking it. What a change from Goodbye, Columbus, with Neil’s post-break-up wallow, after the two parted ways: “And I knew it would be a long while before I made love to anyone the way I had made love to her. With anyone else, could I summon up such a passion?” In the Portnoy universe, a Brenda—a Jewish woman with (stereotype-meeting) flaws, yes, but an allure all the same—couldn’t exist.
Upon my reflection, though, it wasn’t exactly Portnoy that left me so shaken. It was how the novel’s approach to Jewish womanhood fit so seamlessly into the culture. The notion of Jewish women as revolting, paired with that of non-Jewish women as inherently alluring, appeared (and continues to appear) everywhere: in Woody Allen movies, in sitcoms (Elaine’s “shiksappeal” on Seinfeld and, later, Howard’s grotesque off-screen mother on The Big Bang Theory).
It’s tempting to blame Roth for introducing negative stereotypes of Jewish women into mainstream culture, but the stereotypes themselves were already around. Historian Paula Hyman’s Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History demonstrates that the intersection of anti-Semitism and misogyny long predated Roth. Portnoy, like his creator, was a product of the culture.
Still, I’m not convinced Roth’s Roth-centricity—offensive though it could be to the not-Roth population—constitutes a literary weakness. There’s great (and mediocre) fiction across the autobiography to fantasy spectrum. The ability to persuasively imagine the perspective of those from other cultures (or planets!) is indeed a form of literary talent. But to treat it as inherently superior to the ability to describe one’s own experiences in a way that’s relatable across time and identity is to confuse literary merit with a type of virtuosity, one that deserves praise, but that hardly exhausts what fiction can accomplish.
Rather than lamenting that Roth failed to create more three-dimensional Jewish women characters, why not turn to works by Jewish women authors? Erica Jong’s lust-filled 1973 Fear of Flying is the first that comes to mind. But so, too, does Rebecca Goldstein’s 1983 The Mind-Body Problem. Unlike Portnoy, whose sexual adventures are fueled by the desire to fuse with (or screw with) Gentile America, Goldstein’s protagonist Renee Feuer’s are driven by the (perhaps more gender-specific) desire to get as close as possible to (male) brilliance. These are just two novels I read, long after encountering Roth’s works, that helped me realize what felt missing in his works was absolutely out there, just elsewhere.
Despite the rich literature by American Jewish women, including sexuality-themed midcentury fiction, it remains sadly true that the Rothian Jewish experience is entrenched, in the culture, as the Jewish experience. But I don’t believe the corrective involves wishing, as Horn does, that Roth had been more deferential to the qualities of Jewish New Jersey women, who she notes are “talented professionals in every field, and often in those two thankless professions that Roth quite likely required to thrive: teachers and therapists.” Giving thanks is a great quality in life, but not generally the aim of great fiction.
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