Most women I know respect Philip Roth. In a certain way. Like the way you respect the guy who ate 59 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Roth has put out an amazing number of books over a long lifetime of writing. But still, a hot dog is a hot dog.
I know there are women who like Philip Roth. A few. They acknowledge him as a very fine, and certainly prolific, novelist. Some of them even enjoy reading his books. (see: Karen Stabiner)
But most women readers force his novels down so they can plausibly argue their case against that guy who keeps appearing at the kitchen table for breakfast, who claims to be their husband, but who must be an imposter, because they would never marry someone who likes Philip Roth. Then there are those who say they like him for the same reason you can’t really say, “Not really,” to the kid with the clipboard who stops you on the street and asks, “Would you like to help save the earth?”
Michiko Kakutani, for example, reviews his books with uncharacteristically uninflected, seventh-grade-literary-essay-plot-summarizing blandness, as she does in her review of Roth’s Nemesis. This is the woman who wrote about Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow: “… the deliberately withheld secrets littered throughout this book only serve to underscore the lame storytelling and its reliance on cheap tricks.”
But now, in a remarkable breach of Man Booker Prize-ish decorum (1) (2) Judge Carmen Callil resigned after the Roth win, saying that “he goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.”
It doesn’t need to be pointed out that the other two judges, Justin Cartwright and Rick Gekoski are male. This may have nothing to do with anything, but let’s just say, an author – Gekoski – whose Outside of a Dog: a Bibliomemoir, includes Germaine Greer as his only female subject, might be more inclined to like Roth than, say, 50% of all potential Booker Prize judges and 33.3% of this year’s Booker Prize judges. (About Justin Cartwright’s literary inclinations I have no information. And although that has never in my history prevented me from rendering an opinion, this is a respectable website run by otherwise respectable writers, so I’ll exercise the above-mentioned decorum.)
In closing I would like to call upon the congregation to bow their heads in grateful prayer for David Foster Wallace’s 1997 New York Observer review of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time, in which he writes, “Mailer, Updike, Roth — the Great Male Narcissists* who’ve dominated postwar realist fiction are now in their senescence, and it must seem to them no coincidence that the prospect of their own deaths appears backlit by the approaching millennium and on-line predictions of the death of the novel as we know it. When a solipsist dies, after all, everything goes with him.
* Unless, of course, you consider constructing long encomiums to a woman’s ‘sacred several-lipped gateway’ or saying things like ‘It is true, the sight of her plump lips obediently distended around my swollen member, her eyelids lowered demurely, afflicts me with a religious peace’ to be the same as loving her.” (3)
1. In 1974 the Booker shortlist included Kingsley Amis’s Ending up. Elizabeth Jane Howard, his wife, was one of the three judges.
2. In 1993 Anthony Cheetham, publisher of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, called the judges “a bunch of wankers” for not shortlisting the book.
3. Excerpts from Updike, not Roth, but you get the idea.