Category Archives: Philip Roth

Aside

Joseph O’Neill considers Philip Roth‘s late novels in the Atlantic (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain; have been collected in a new volume from the Library of America): Much of the action in these novels takes … Continue reading

Links: Back in Town

I spent much of last week in New York City, where I helped select the winners of the National Book Critics Circle awards. It was my first year as a board member taking part in the process, and though the proceedings are confidential, I think it’s OK to say my worst fears didn’t come to pass. I recall little discussion revolving around identity politics, reputation burnishing, or turning a literary award into a lifetime achievement award; the conversations about the books ultimately turned on the merits of the books themselves. (Though that’s not to say the discussions always went smoothly; things get noisy when two dozen smart people get in the same room to talk about books.) Regardless, despite having voiced a few complaints about Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad, I’m happy it took the prize in fiction. And I wish we could have given some kind of prize to Donna Tartt, who delivered a stellar, hilarious reading from Paul Murray‘s Skippy Dies the night before the awards.

Goodreads is hosting a panel discussion on short stories this week with Alan Heathcock, Danielle Evans, Valerie Laken, and Emma Straub. I’m particularly intrigued by Heathcock’s writing process, which involves more thinking than drafting: “I don’t like sitting at the computer until the life is full in my imagination. I call this “hitting critical mass”—the point where the character (in the situation, in the place) is so alive in my imagination that it’s clawing at the backside of my eyes to get out. About 80% of my process is spent not putting words of a blank page, but doing anything I can/need to do to reach critical mass.” (My review of his debut collection, Volt, should be online soon.)

Ishmael Reed on his new book, Juice!: “Since I don’t like the modernist novel in which the omniscient narrator smothers his characters to death with psychoanalysis, they called my characters cartoonish. So I made this new character of mine a cartoonist.”

Snooping on John Fante‘s papers.

Ethan Canin on being a novelist without a sense of place.

This is Téa Obreht‘s moment. Though I wasn’t as seduced with The Tiger’s Wife as many seem to be.

Sam Lipsyte on his early days: “I would hoard my words, hoard my decent pages. I didn’t realize you just have to keep throwing everything away and squandering everything because you’ll find out that the real stuff starts to come. It’s learning not to be too precious about a few sentences you’ve written.”

One paragraph from Philip Roth on Thomas Wolfe.

Michael Copperman voices his frustrations with being a non-black writer who works in black dialect. I don’t know enough about the internal politics of literary magazines to validate his argument that there’s a reflexive aversion to Copperman’s choices as a writer; it strikes me that dialect-heavy stories in general can be hard to come by. (Even Mark Twain, who least needed to justify his choices as a writer, felt compelled to explain his use of dialect in Huckleberry Finn. Joking as the explanatory note is, he clearly sensed the matter needed addressing.) And, at the risk of diminishing the issues of racial politics Copperman discusses, dialect may simply be especially challenging on a rhetorical level, as difficult to pull off as a multithreaded historical narrative or a convincing work of magical realism. If editors have to get past a lot to accept a dialect-heavy piece of work, writers have to work through a lot to make one worth reading.

Anyway, I asked Richard Price about this a few years back in the context of his 1992 novel, Clockers. What he says strikes me as reasonable, though of course he had built a reputation before Clockers that perhaps made it less likely to raise the hackles of editors:

You don’t have to be a crack addict to write about it. Anybody can bear witness. I never for a second ever presumed to think I know what it’s like to be black. At the same time I also feel like, is everything between black and white so exotic that a white writer dare not write about being black? Because we have no human traits in common? In a way it’s like, the human heart is the human heart. I don’t sit down and think, “Now I’m gonna write a black character.” I’m gonna write a character. And this character happens to be black. And I feel like I don’t have to be black to write about a black character anymore than a writer has to be white to write about a white character, or a writer has to be gay to write about a gay character.

I always say this: You can’t get into this vicious game where you have to be the thing that you write. That’s deadly. Because if I can’t write about being black, or if I don’t want to see any black people write about being white, and if I can’t write about being gay, I don’t want to see any gay writers writing about straight people, because you don’t know what it’s like to be straight. You don’t know what it’s like to be white, you don’t know what it’s like to be Jewish or Christian, or Muslim.” The job of the novelist—or any creative writer—is to imagine lives that are not your own. And nothing is off-limits. If you’re writing about a group of people, and you do a clichéd job, you deserve whatever’s coming to you. If you’re just contributing to a stereotype.

Believe me, I was so aware of this while I was writing. I was scared to death about the whole charge of cultural piracy. It was a very hard thing to convince myself I had a right to do. But once you get a roll going, it’s like, This guy’s a human being.

Links: All Talk

Thomas McGuane on reviews: “John Updike said reviews are inexorably mixed—and that’s true. But it doesn’t exempt you from the storm and stress of them as they roll in. You’ll get one from the daily New York Times that says you’re the worst writer in the world, and one from the Sunday New York Times that says you’re the best writer in the world; the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says somebody ought to shoot you, and the San Francisco Chronicle says, ‘Let’s welcome him to Mount Parnassus.'”

HTMLGiant interviews Stephen O’Connor about his fine story collection, Here Comes Another Lesson. (A few thoughts on the book.)

Elaine Showalter on the connection between Albert Camus and Philip Roth.

The Paris Review is currently working on an interview with Samuel R. Delany. Says editor Lorin Stein: “I don’t think Delany’s books have ever sold many copies, but if you want to know what’s going on in American literature, you had better know about him and his literature. So, in that sense, it may become a more parochial interview than it was; it may do less to encourage international understanding, but I think that now the literary community in the United States feels that it’s more marginalized than it used to be.”

Ted Gioia talks up his Postmodern Mystery project with Scott Timberg.

Karen Tei Yamashita
discusses the massive amount of research she conducted for her National Book Award-nominated novel, I Hotel. The intensity of her research is certainly on every page, to a fault—during much of the time I was reading it, I wished the book were an oral history of San Francisco’s International Hotel, and at times the book’s novelistic elements were so thin I suspect Yamashita occasionally did too.

“In whole fields of discourse, from politics to academia, the very notion of a book—a static, authored, discrete hunk of prose—is starting to seem quaint.”

On Herman Wouk‘s Marjorie Morningstar: “By choosing Morality over Marjorie while indulging Marjorie over Morality, Wouk creates a character, call her a puritanical sybarite, much more intriguing than he may have intended.”

Scott Esposito on online literary criticism.

Russell Banks: “People more and more resemble people in the 1930s. Maybe that tradition of socially conscious novels written by Dreiser and Dos Passos will re-emerge. In my own work I’ve always had that dynamic conflict between high art and a narrative that’s socially conscious. There’s always been a healthy kind of back-and-forth. Maybe today’s crisis will bring that tradition back into view. I hope so.”

Allegra Goodman on revision.

Stanford is launching a multidisciplinary year-long program addressing war and ethics. Tobias Wolff is handling the literature part.

Anne Rice on sex and Catholicism.

On teaching graphic novels. A good chunk of Alexander Chee‘s reading list is unfamiliar to me, but we seem to share an admiration for Lynda Barry‘s memoir/writing primer, What It Is.

If you’re participating in National Novel Writing Month—or just writing a novel, I suppose—some extended advice on writing female characters: “I’ve read so many books about Men who live their lives apart from the rest of society, walking the streets at night, staying in their little apartments, FACING THE EXISTENTIAL DESPAIR OF THE HUMAN CONDITION. But I’ve never read a book like that with a female protagonist. It seems like female characters aren’t just limited by the depth of their character, but also by the questions they are allowed to interrogate.”

Dinaw Mengestu on a Times review that concluded with a hope that his fiction might “expand to the world beyond his own experience“: “Saul Bellow spent his entire career writing novels that pretty much concern the experience of Jewish American second generations—and obviously I’m not comparing myself to Bellow, but would you say, “Bellow needs to stop writing about that”? No. Philip Roth—“Just get over the Jewishness.” Toni Morrison should get over her African American experience thing in her fiction. And Edward P. Jones, my God, how many times is he going to write about black people in D.C.? It’s absurd.”

Short and Cranky

Like his mentor Saul Bellow, Philip Roth has been dedicating much of his late career to writing short novels. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal timed to the release of his new novel, Nemesis, he recalls discussing the art of concision with Bellow:

Mr. Roth began to think seriously about writing shorter novels about six years ago. He admired the shorter work of Saul Bellow, and at one point discussed it with him. “I said, ‘How do you do it? I know how to write a novel, and I like the amplification that goes into writing a novel, but how do you pack a punch in just 150 pages?'”

Unfortunately, the interviewer decided either not to follow up about what Bellow’s response was, or chose not to ask. I’ve spent some time trying to dig up some information about Bellow’s philosophy of the short novel, especially the ones he wrote during his own late period, but I haven’t had much luck. (They’re not my favorite books of his; though I have distinct memories of having read 1989’s A Theft and 1997’s The Actual, I can’t recall them packing much of a punch.) A Theft, in fact, isn’t really a short novel at all—it’s a short story that was deemed too long to run in the New Yorker, Esquire, and the Atlantic by their editors, so Bellow decided to go the then-unusual route of publishing it as a paperback original.* The problem, Bellow made clear to the New York Times, wasn’t the story but the growing contempt magazines had for serious fiction. ”I had already suspected for a long time that they are not interested in fiction very much any more,” he told the paper. ”Most of the serious magazines feel it necessary to have one story per issue, and the minimalists are much in favor because they don’t take up too much space. That way you can have all that room for advertisements.”

I may just be using the internet, Google Books, and Lexis-Nexis incorrectly, but it seems no journalist wondered why a novelist who made his name with bricks like The Adventures of Augie March and Herzog would shift gears later in life, and what differences there were between his widescreen novels and his novellas. Bellow did discuss the appeal of brevity for him, though somewhat quietly—he buried it in the afterword he wrote for his 2001 Collected Stories.** “[I]n my early years I wrote more than one fat book,” he writes. “It’s difficult for me now to read those early novels, not because they lack interest but because I find myself editing them, slimming down my sentences and cutting whole paragraphs.”

But his urge for tightening prose, he explains, involved more than just an editor’s instinct—the afterword as a whole is a lament for the death of readers’ attention spans, though his frustration is so velveted it takes a moment to actually register as frustration. His mood slowly darkens in the course of a paragraph:

[W]e respond with approval when Chekhov tells us, “Odd, I have now a mania for shortness. Whatever I read—my own or other people’s works—it all seems to me not short enough.” I find myself emphatically agreeing with this. There is a modern taste for brevity and condensation. Kafka, Beckett, and Borges wrote short. People of course do write long, and write successfully, but to write short is felt by a growing public to be a very good thing—perhaps the best. At once a multitude of possible reasons for this feeling comes to mind: This is the end of the millennium. We have heard it all. We have no time. We have more significant fish to fry. We require a wider understanding, new terms, a deeper penetration.

From there, some gorgeously rendered passages of get-off-my-lawn-ism ensue: Complaints about Michael Jackson’s new record deal making the arts pages, and then a list of all the things jockeying for our attention instead of books: “automobile and pharmaceutical giants, cable TV, politicians, entertainers, academics, opinion makers, porn videos, Ninja Turtles, etc.” Bellow suggests that future writers will have to both compete with and address this new way of living: “Such a writer will trouble no one with his own vanities, will make no unnecessary gestures, indulge himself in no mannerisms, waste no reader’s time. He will write as short as he can.” But he closes with a line I can’t help but read as a screw-you: “I offer this as a brief appendix to the stories in this volume,” writes Bellow, a man who had little patience with being told to write to length.

The mentee makes clear what the mentor would only state indirectly. “The concentration, the focus, the solitude, the silence, all the things that are required for serious reading are not within people’s reach anymore,” Roth recently told Reuters. In writing a short novel like Nemesis, he said, “I am with the times.”

* According to a 1989 story in the Independent, 60,000 copies of the British edition of A Theft had to be pulped because the cover misrepresented the title as Theft—a tale that echoes present-day events.

** The book treats A Theft and 1989’s The Bellarosa Connection as stories, not short novels.

Enter Ghost

Wyatt Mason‘s tribute to Philip Roth‘s 1979 novel, The Ghost Writer, on Critical Mass is brief, but he clears enough room to challenge the idea that Roth is a writer of narrow range. “Despite a reputation for monomaniacal attention to fixed themes—sex; women; writers; writing; Jews; Israel—Roth has exhibited such formal variety from book to book that where you choose to jump in can create very different impressions of Roth’s novelistic nature,” he writes. “It would be difficult to gather three more different novels by a single author than Letting Go, The Breast, and The Counterlife.”

Mason calls The Ghost Writer “perfect,” an adjective he’s smart enough to know only to deploy in only the most worthy cases. Maybe it is: I gobbled down the Zuckerman novels about 10 years ago, in the Zuckerman Bound omnibus, so my memory is foggy. I read the three novels (including Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson too quickly, but the feel of Nathan’s neurosis and dark humor are hard to forget. Prompted by Mason’s essay, I dug out the old paperback and quickly sunk back in. The Anatomy Lesson is the most memorable one for me—it’s the anxious author in full flower, so oppressed by memories and failures he tries to pursue a medical career in middle age. A small bit shows Roth’s skill at inhabiting Zuckerman’s torment but finding humor in it too:

But he was not a sick man—he was fighting the idea of himself as sick. Every thought and feeling ensnared by the selfness of pain, pain endlessly circling back on itself, diminishing everything except isolation—first it’s the pain that empties the world, then it’s the effort to overcome it. He refused to endure one day more.

Other people. So busy diagnosing everybody else there’s no time to overdiagnose yourself. The unexamined life—the only one worth living.

And yet he can’t help but self-examine. Shortly after that fit of self-flagellation comes a single long paragraph, four dense pages in the paperback, that describe how the bright college boy became a serious writer. It’s a great feat—not just telling the reader how Zuckerman became who he was but, in its very telling, showing how adrift he is.

Links: That’ll Do

Dan Chaon: “We both know that the cliché of the Midwest is that we are all corn-fed, really nice people, but you read any police blotter in any small town, and you know that’s not true (laughs). My mother was someone who was the first big storyteller in my life, and her fascination was always with morbid or crazy things that happened to people she was related to or people she knew about — you know, somebody having a heart attack and falling into a pig pen and being eaten alive by the pigs.”

Various Jonathan Lethem-related film projects are floating around; most recently, David Cronenberg may direct Lethem’s 1997 novel, As She Climbed Across the Table.

Considering James Hynes‘ stellar new novel, Next, as a retort to Reality Hunger.

The best underappreciated Chicago novel.

How motherhood fed Shirley Jackson‘s fiction.

Do critics need to be tougher? (And does my phrasing the link in the form of a question reflect the urge to be compassionate and nonconfrontational that Jeffrey R. Di Leo derides?)

How John Updike revised. The multimedia glimpse into multiple drafts of the opening of Rabbit at Rest is particularly interesting. (Last year I took a look at how Updike tweaked some of the stories that appeared his final collection, My Father’s Tears.)

A letter Nicholson Baker wrote to Updike in 1985, under the “oddly peaceful emotional umbrella” of one of his stories.

Henry Roth biographer Steven Kellman responds in Bookforum (reg req’d) to Joshua Cohen’s criticism of An American Type in Harper’s.

The Italian “journalist” who invented a host of interviews with Philip Roth, Paul Auster, Gore Vidal, and many others has confessed.

Wendell Berry has pulled his papers from the University of Kentucky to protest the school’s affiliation with the coal industry.

Aimee Bender‘s influences, from Raymond Carver to L. Frank Baum to The Piano.

Blogging Ray Bradbury.

Susan Straight on her surprise at how eagerly her students took to Winesburg, Ohio. (Straight also puts in a good word for Alex Espinoza‘s fine 2007 novel, Still Water Saints.) (via)

Thanks to “bungling bureaucrats in Washington, DC,” Annie Proulx couldn’t give a reading in Moscow.

If you’re in Germany after Thanksgiving, there’s a sizable conference on the work of Richard Powers going on. (via)

“[Philip] Roth assumed the persona of my friend’s whiny Jewish mother while masturbating my friend’s black umbrella. In a kvetchy falsetto, Roth scolded my friend for being a bad son.”

Links: Good Enough for Government Work

I recently finished Adam Haslett‘s novel on financial malfeasance and the definition of good citizenship, Union Atlantic. More soon, but for now suffice to say it’s a rare case of a novel I wished were longer. Turns out Haslett cut out plenty.

Parents of students at a high school in Santa Rosa, California, recently attempted to pull T.C. Boyle‘s The Tortilla Curtain from its reading list. Boyle’s response: “I do take it as a badge of honor…. It’s preposterous. Look at what kids are exposed to daily in the pure crap on TV or at the movies or rock and roll—it’s a free country. This is art. How many rape scenes do you suppose the average child has seen watching TV in his life?”

A Harvard Crimson columnist reads the first section of Philip Roth‘s American Pastoral and detects a “heavy fog of exhausted and demoralized irony,” whatever that is. Failing to complete the novel doesn’t prevent the writer from drawing comparisons to The Road. Now, committing acts of comparative literature can be great fun, but it works a lot better when you’ve actually finished both books. I had assumed this was taught at Harvard.

Joyce Carol Oates recalls growing up in Lockport, New York—a hometown that, she notes, she shares with Timothy McVeigh. Her interest in creepy violence in both fiction and nonfiction being well-documented, it makes a certain sense that she’d be tapped as a source for a story on Amy Bishop.

Tobias Wolff inspires a tattoo.

Ole Miss is trying to come up with a new mascot. Why not William Faulkner?

A documentary on David Goodis is now available on DVD. The trailer:

The BBC’s American Archive

Starting tomorrow, BBC’s Radio 4 will broadcast Capturing America, a series hosted by Mark Lawson on “how American writing became the literary superpower of the 20th century.” Interviews with the usual suspects—Updike, Roth, Vonnegut, Oates—provide the backbone of the series, with Dave Eggers and Patricia Cornwell being the closest things to surprise choices. But Lawson is less interested in finding outliers than in performing a summing-up of popular literary tastes after the war, to figure out why Updike mattered so much to readers in the 70s and 80s that landed on the cover of Time twice. More personally, he was also interested in meeting the writers he got a charge out of decades ago. As he writes in a stemwinder in the Guardian on his experience working on the series:

One of the major pleasures of my long investigation of American writing was meeting writers who have been heroes since I read as a teenager the Penguins and Picadors which – now yellowed and buckled – became research material 30 years later. Time and again, the jacket photographs miraculously came to life.

Norman Mailer, standing in greeting at the top of his tall house in Brooklyn Heights, with its view to the Statue of Liberty, and growling, in a perfect parody of his reputation for obsession with masculinity: “You’re a big man. Do you box? You should box.” Philip Roth skittish and wickedly jokey as the technical preparations were made, sombre and professorial as soon as the interviews began. Joyce Carol Oates, one of the most vociferous writers in literary history (around 150 publications, including all pseudonyms and genres), so softly spoken in a Princeton University office that she could hardly be heard over the purr of the heating. Toni Morrison, giving a magisterial reading and analysis of America on the brink of electing Obama. John Updike, arriving at a snowy Boston hotel, wearing a black knitted cap and clutching a Dunkin Donuts cup of decaf coffee.

All the interviews Lawson conducted are available on the Radio 4 Web site. Most are at least a few years old, but some were conducted just months ago, including a conversation with Joyce Carol Oates about how she “more or less collapsed” after the death of her husband in 2008, and how her writing habits have changed since then:

I have only a fraction of my energy. I’m not really the same person anymore. I don’t write under a pseudonym any longer because it’s all I can do to write under my own name. I had so much energy in those days that I could write another novel in, like, three months, and then write my own novel under my own name. Now, I haven’t planned a novel since Little Bird of Heaven. I don’t have the psychological strength or concentration. But I do work.

The Facts

Leon Wieseltier opens his essay on Philip Roth’s The Humbling at the New Republic‘s new book-review site with this bit of throat-clearing:

So much contemporary American fiction also seems researched, worked up, instrumentalized, by skillful minds eager to display their skills. Writers go prowling through eras of history or fields of science in search of their next project, disguising the absence of a calling as curiosity. They become experts. (And critics call the results of their expertise “richly imagined.”) A subject is needed and one is discovered, something fascinating, something exotic, something cool, and with a plentitude of information, of natty and newly acquired knowledge, it is mastered, and settled, and the career moves on.

Wieseltier doesn’t call out any specific examples to make this case, but it’s not to hard to figure out what kind of book he means to indict. It’s probably one like Samantha Hunt‘s 2008 novel The Invention of Everything Else, which foregrounded plenty of detail about the life of Nikola Tesla; it might also include what Marco Roth recently dubbed the “neuronovel” in n+1 magazine, covering books like Richard PowersThe Echo Maker or Jonathan Lethem‘s Motherless Brooklyn, both of which reflect a lot of time spent studying up on psychological disorders.

Point being, the argument goes, that we’re living in an age where too much information has swallowed up novelists’ capacity to cut through all the noise and get at something “poetical and spiritual.” Fair enough, even if you acknowledge that (contrary to Wieseltier’s suggestion) that the problem isn’t a new one—it’s hard to find readers wholeheartedly in love with novels like The Grapes of Wrath and Arrowsmith, where research and the spiritual don’t connect especially well. If only any of this actually applied to The Humbling. Wieseltier calls out Roth’s mention of the make and model of a shotgun and some medical patter as evidence that Roth has lapsed into “noisy details.” Roth also has his hero, despairing actor Simon Axler, ponder a long list of roles in which he’s triumphed, and to Wieseltier this is evidence of a “preening writer.” Why couldn’t it be evidence of a preening actor?

If it takes this little “research” for Wieseltier to damn The Humbling, I wondered what he made of Roth’s 1993 novel, Operation Shylock, which was built on plenty of homework on John Demjanjuk. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s not a fan, but the reason for his distaste is his feeling that the book is, to one important degree, actually underresearched. The Roth of the novel confesses and ignorance of Hebrew, prompting Wieseltier to retort:

Roth’s confession, if that is what it is, perfectly illustrates the complacence of American Jews, their bad faith toward their own identity. For the vast majority of American Jews, the sight of Hebrew will suffice. Its opacity does not interfere with the sensation of authenticity that it provides. Roth’s talk about this particular obsession of his consciousness is empty, because this particular obsession does not seem to impose any obligation upon him.

This writer whose novels sometimes suffer from a surfeit of smartness is, in this matter, quite content with an admission of stupidity. As usual with American Jewry, ignorance is no impediment to pride. Quite the contrary. Pride will make up for ignorance, and hide it behind the ferocity of tribal expression. The ignorance of his tradition leaves the writer not ashamed, it leaves him sentimental.

I won’t even pretend to feel qualified to address the question of how much Hebrew Roth ought to know and how it might improve his fiction. But Wieseltier’s outrage does suggest that he knows detail has its uses, even if it risks the occasional “surfeit of smartness.” To describe a shotgun as a pump-action Remington instead of just a shotgun is no crime—especially if, adhering to that old rule about introducing firearms in a play, it gets used.

Wuss 1.0

“The Naked and the Conflicted,” Katie Roiphe‘s essay in last week’s New York Times Book Review, is a little like that old cartoon of a blackboard showing the beginning of an equation and its solution, with the words “then a miracle occurs” written in between. In the 60s, Roiphe argues, writers like Philip Roth, John Updike, Norman Mailer, and Saul Bellow were proudly open about sex, their sexuality, and the kind of power they enjoyed wielding over women; today’s male authors, by contrast, write about sex as if they’re disinterested or downright scared of it. In between, feminism occurred.

I don’t reflexively disagree with the notion that consensus male fiction writers of the 60s wrote more candidly about sex; if there’s nothing shocking about the sex scenes themselves in Couples, Updike was definitely much more casual with c-bombs than most male writers would be today. I’m just not sure what feminism has to do with it, at least any more than it has to do with changing marriage patterns (you can’t be a randy adulterer in your 20s if everybody’s waiting till they’re 30 to get hitched), more explicit sex in other media, or anything else. I’m also not convinced that the division in generational attitudes is as clean as she asserts.

“Passivity, a paralyzed sweetness, a deep ambivalence about sexual appetite, are somehow taken as signs of a complex and admirable inner life” in more contemporary writers’ work, Roiphe writes, calling out Dave Eggers, Benjamin Kunkel, David Foster Wallace, and Michael Chabon for special attention. Roiphe doesn’t mention any particular moment when this shift occurred, saying only that younger writers who are “steeped in a certain kind of liberal education” produce works “denuded of a certain carnality” as a result of a “certain cultural shutting down,” so now sex has “a certain vanished grandeur.” (When a critic repeatedly opines about “a certain” anything, you can be pretty sure that something isn’t being studied closely enough.) So I wonder what she might make of novels that appeared in the middle of this timeline, like, say, Richard Ford‘s The Sportswriter.

That book came out in 1986, presumably in the heart of the moment when feminism was doing its literary damage. Ford’s a Boomer though, and at least demographically enough a part of the patriarchal past to be immune to “a certain kind of liberal education.” Yet Frank Bascombe is, by most stereotypical standards of masculinity, a bit of a wuss. He participates in a support group for divorced men like himself, likes sports but isn’t particularly interested in the manly-man aspects of it, is comfortable following instead of leading, and tends to succumb to a “dreaminess” that leaves him occasionally out of touch with the wider world. (Not without reason; he’s been mourning the death of his son for years.) Women? He’s an enthusiast, but not in any explicit way. Frank doesn’t fuck or screw or deploy any of the coarser terms for sex. He “boinks.” He “woggles.” He and a woman go “woogling around in each other’s businesses.” He refers to his ex-wife as “X,” which in most novels might have a tinge of I’ll-never-speak-her-name-again to it, but Frank’s too well-meaning for that; his use of “X” seems more an act of protection, a willingness to keep her name out of the document he’s writing. If we’re arbitrarily laying blame for Wallace’s disinterest in writing about fucking, there’s no reason not to blame Ford as much as anybody else.

But the thing is, Bellow’s and Updike’s heroes were less immune to that kind of Bascombe-y “dreaminess” than Roiphe suggests, and to deny that is to say that they were only as good as the sex scenes they wrote. The hero of, say, Updike’s Roger’s Version is so lost within himself that he plays out his wife’s ongoing affair wholly in his imagination. Regarding Bellow, Roiphe calls out his novel Herzog as a special example of the brashness with which he approached women. Yet Bellow rarely intended that to exclusively signify masculinity, virility, or even some kind of general verve; what Moses Herzog most lives with is concern about how he relates as to the world as well as women, a case that’s as true for him as it is for Rabbit Angstrom or Bascombe or any of the many well-intentioned but fearful fellas who’ve populated fiction since 2000. Why does Roiphe think Moses Herzog was writing all those letters, if not because he’s scared of something?