Philip Roth & Tom Wolfe, RIP

May 24, 2018

Tags: #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, Claire Bloom, misogyny, Women's Movement, The Great American Novel, Bellow, Updike, Roth, Mailer

"The sheer surprise of the Lindbergh nomination had activated an atavistic sense of being undefended. "

"A childhood milestone, when another’s tears are more unbearable than one’s own."

--Philip Roth, “The Plot Against America: A Novel,” 2004

“In this little room full of people he was suffering the pangs of men whose egos lose their virginity—as happens when they overhear for the first time a beautiful woman’s undiluted, full-strength opinion of their masculine selves.”

--Tom Wolfe, “Bonfire of the Vanities,” 1987

This blog post is dedicated to Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe who died this week, both in their 80’s. They were tireless writers, prescient writers. They wrote fiction and nonfiction, though Wolfe was primarily a journalist who wrote his novel “Bonfire of the Vanities” on a dare. All journalists eventually turn to fiction and harbor the ambition to write The Great American Novel, his friends said to him, sotto voce. Hubris ascendant, Norman Mailer had always said he would write The Great American Novel. Instead, he wrote “The Executioner’s Song,” a nonfiction book that used fictional devices to tell a story. Roth wrote a tongue in cheek, not very successful novel called "The Great American Novel," in 1973. It was about baseball.

Tom Wolfe found it difficult to relinquish interviewing and the scaffold of a real-life story, so he disciplined himself to produce a certain amount of words every week, and made an arrangement with Rolling Stone to serialize the book. That was unusual, strange and nerve-wracking. He vowed never to do it again. Think of Dickens, Trollope and other 19th century novelists writing to deadline, much like journalists, every week, book after book after book.

Roth had always written fiction, fiction that reads like nonfiction, and only occassionally wrote nonfiction. His setting was more often than not Newark, the city of his birth, and he created a persona, Nathan Zuckerman , a writer, to tell his richest stories. Yet, my favorites are non-Zuckerman novels, both masterpieces: “Nemesis” and “The Plot Against America,” which I reread this year. It was the One Book selection in several towns across America and for good reason; it is prescient indeed.

These days women are often offended by the old guard of white-American, sometimes misogynist male writers—Updike, Roth, Bellow, Mailer, etc. – men of the pre-women’s movement generation. And though we may wonder what women writers were doing for them, and with them, as they were getting published and becoming famous, these essential contemporary questions do not diminish the writers’ talent and accomplishments. Still, it's of interest that Roth's ex-wife, actress Claire Bloom, wrote a scathing memoir about her marriage to Roth, "Leaving a Doll's House," that paints the author as a self-centered misogynist. Her book faded into obscurity as his reputation soared. And is it fair and is it right? Fair, perhaps not. Right, absolutely. Books survive on their merit.

So, too, the work of Wharton, Hemingway and many others. Anti-semitism courses through Hemingway and Wharton like a mother lode. When I was young and came upon mindlessly cruel racial slurs, in the voice of the narrator or the character, I shut the book and tossed it aside. I was more than offended, I was terrified. But no longer: the times in which those writers lived were different times. With #Metoo and #BlackLivesMatter, we are now in the midst of another advancement in Civil Rights. Writers will digest these changes and use them in their work. I am certain that Roth and Wolfe, both astute observers of America, would have done the same had they lived another decade.

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