Comment: Philip Roth And His Dead Dogs

“Can men write about women?” And the fool expects an answer.”

Heinrich Heine

“Roth possessed a verbal brilliance and breadth probably unsurpassed by any American novelist in the postwar period. He could be enormously, subversively funny. He mocked many sacred cows and poured cold water on many national myths. His treatment of his own foibles and those of his friends and lovers were often unsparing”.

David Walsh

“In some quarters, ‘misogynist’ is now a word used almost as laxly as was ‘Communist’ by the McCarthyite right in the 1950s—and for very like the same purpose.”

Philip Roth

To tell the truth, is very difficult, and young people are rarely capable of it.

Leo Tolstoy

Thomas Carlyle complained once that during the writing of his study of Oliver Cromwell, he had been required to “drag out the Lord Protector from under a mountain of dead dogs”. With Philip Roth being dead only two years I feel the same must be required of him.

The last two years have seen an outpouring of vitriol against Roth. This has increased with the recent release of several biographies. The most important one of these biographies is one by Blake Bailey.[1]Since I have not read this 900-page book, I will not comment on it but will later. This article is about the hysterical response from the book reviewer Leo Robson.

Although not all of the book reviews needlessly attack Roth, the majority highlight that we live in a time, according to the writer David Walsh that contains “widespread historical ignorance and cultural debasement”. In Roth’s case, the manufactured controversy is a product of this environment. It must be said that in the latest reviews of Bailey’s biography, some preposterous things have been written accusing the novelist of misunderstanding or being hostile to women and having sexual failings.[2]This new collection of reviews have a commonality about them. All of them seem to advocate a new form of Puritanism and want to return to a period when writers were censored and their books burnt.

As Walsh writes, “What irks a good number of the commentators is the fact that the late novelist had no use, generally speaking, for the obsession with identity politics, the brand of fraudulent and reactionary postmodern “leftism” that has proliferated on American campuses and elsewhere over the past 40 years or so. Roth treated several female academics and other such types rather roughly in his books, suggesting that behind their aggressive “feminism” lay a good number of hidden factors, including psychological insecurity, personal ambition and avarice. His instinctive hostility was entirely appropriate”.[3]

Perhaps the vilest and worthless attack on Roth comes from Leo Robson, whose review of Bailey book reaches new heights of hysterics and manufactured controversy. He writes, “He reports without comment the BBC’s bananas contention that Roth was ‘arguably the best writer not to have won the Nobel Prize since Tolstoy’, as well as the maybe even sillier claim made by Roth’s friend Benjamin Taylor that his work is ‘built to outlast whatever unforeseeable chances and changes await us and our descendants’. Quoting postmortem hyperbole is always a tempting recourse for the exhausted biographer bidding farewell, but by loading his epilogue with the encomia of the novelist’s most ardent fans, not exactly absent from the rest of the book, Bailey dodges a far more pressing duty, to explain why Philip Roth – nostalgist, American chauvinist, spouter of ‘amazingly tasteless’ opinions, serial seducer of students, and, latterly and not unrelatedly, a critic of #MeToo – has outlasted the changes already upon us”.

Like all critics of Roth, Robson hates the fact that Roth had the temerity to attack the #MeToo movement. David Walsh correctly attacked this movement whose ostensible aim “is to combat sexual harassment and assault, i.e., to bring about some measure of social progress. However, the repressive, regressive means resorted to—including unsubstantiated and often anonymous denunciations and sustained attacks on the presumption of innocence and due process—give the lie to the campaign’s “progressive” claims. Such methods are the hallmark of an anti-democratic, authoritarian movement, and one, moreover, that deliberately seeks to divert attention from social inequality, attacks on the working class, the threat of war and the other great social and political issues of the day”.

Robson does have a track record of hating Roth.His review of Here We Are: My Friendship with Philip Roth-By Benjamin Taylor was not too flattering. His latest review of Blake Bailey’s biography of Roth should have been sent back to him by the editors, and have been asked to do better.The first thing that strikes you of Robson’s article is the title which has a question mark. I am unsure if the editor at Literary Review magazine choose this or Robson himself. Either way, it is a pretty stupid thing to do because any objective criteria would show Roth to be one the greatest writers of the 20th century.

Also, the low level of Robson’s article is shocking, but even more shocking is the fact that Literary Review printed in that form in the first place. Take this quote, “But even as Roth settled into the role of grumbling grand old man, he remained more than ever the entitled child, in permanent need of soothing, powerless to resist a tempting treat or keep a tantrum at bay. ‘Tell him to grow up,’ Nicole Kidman, who played Faunia in the film adaptation of The Human Stain, is reported to have said on learning that Roth was annoyed about a date that went awry. I mean, what is that about. It is just childish gossip. Who cares.

Robson is right about one thing that Roth was a product of his environment. The monkey finally typed a sentence. It is not Roth’s fault that he grew up in the early part of the 20th century. He did not choose the conditions, but he achieved artistic greatness despite all the political handicaps he faced.As Walsh said, “Roth grew up during the Cold War, and the limitations of American intellectual life during that epoch also helped shape him, as much as he may have cursed and even kicked against its confines”.

The great Marxist writer Leon Trotsky put it even better “There would be no art without human physiology because there would be no human beings at all, but that does not mean art can simply be explained by human physiology. Between that physiology and artwork, as Marxists understand, lies a complex system of transmitting mechanisms in which there are individual, species-particular and, above all, social elements. The sexual-physiological foundation of humanity changes very slowly, its social relations more rapidly. Artists find material for their art primarily in their social environment and in alterations in the social environment. Otherwise, there would be no change in art over time, and “people would continue from generation to generation to be content with the poetry of the Bible, or of the old Greeks”.[4]

To conclude, it is only fitting to end with the words by David Walsh, who has intelligently commented on Roth’s work when he “wrote “I’m less and less convinced that one ought to judge an artist primarily or even substantially by the social views he or she espouses. A great many factors go into the formation of such views, many of them outside the control of the individual artist. But the artist does have responsibility for the honesty and integrity of his or her approach to life and art, for the continual reworking of themes and language or materials, for the maintenance of that level of dissatisfaction and restlessness, transmitted to a reader, that contributes to giving a work meaning and value. I am moved by Roth’s efforts. Roth’s best novels will endure”.[5]If Mr Robson wants to reply to this article, my website is free for him to reply. I wait with bated breath.


[1] Philip Roth: The Biography Hardcover – 8 April 2021 Blake Bailey

[2] David walsh -https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2018/06/18/roth-j18.html

[3] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2018/06/18/roth-j18.html

[4] Leon Trotsky – Culture and Socialism – 1927

[5] See Walsh’s collected writings- The Sky Between the Leaves: Film Reviews, Essays and Interviews 1992 – 2012 Paperback – 22 Nov. 2013 Mehring books

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