Philip Roth: arousing and appalling in equal measures, the divisive novelist had a complex relationship with his female readership

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
May 24, 2018 /

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Jewishness and neurosis. Sexuality and the modern masculinity crisis. Damaged, intellectual and frequently adulterous men seeking solace in the bodies of younger women. When I think of Philip Roth’s work, Frank Black’s “she’s my way out of here” lyrics always seem like an appropriate soundtrack.

If I’ve got my reader cap on — or my writer cap on, for that matter — Roth is so much more than the clichéd navel-gazing Jew preoccupied with sex and self. As a feminist, though, and as an academic, my enjoyment of his writing has always come with mixed emotions.

My preference in art is always material complicated in its joy, arousing and appalling in equal measures. Roth’s catalogue is the quintessential illustration of this.

My favourite of his books, Everyman, has an unnamed protagonist in an entanglement with a woman named Merete. Taking far longer than is reasonable, the nameless everyman eventually reaches a disconcerting quasi-epiphany and questions whether “Merete was something more than that little hole, or perhaps something less”.

His preoccupation with her anus — an orifice apparently so enticing that he left his second wife just to plough it — is the perfect amalgam of a reading experience that is cringeworthy, contemptuous and yet thoroughly erotic all at once.

I could say the same thing for the scene in The Dying Animal where David watches Consuela remove her tampon, and dozens of other scenes just like it.

As a pre-teen, Judy Blume’s Deenie and perhaps a tad less obviously, Jennifer Lynch’s The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, provided me with my first literary peeks at female masturbation. For the male equivalents, I’d turn to Roth.

In my first week of high school I was told the already well-worn rumour that a maths teacher had had sex with a piece of liver. It would take me a year or so to realise, alas, someone had just read Portnoy’s Complaint.

Young Alexander Portnoy’s memorable deployment of innards — not to mention his autoerotic use of an apple, a milk bottle, and a candy wrapper, each cooing to him “give it to me, Big Boy” — is imagery that haunted me long after I closed the book.

For years, I remain fascinated by the sharp contrast between the timid, almost twee, talk of Deenie’s “special place” and Laura’s discovery of her “secret red button”, on one hand, and on the other, a young Alexander thrusting against the piece of liver that his family would later eat.

I’d go on to write a book exploring the very gender differences evident in these decades-old examples, which provided early templates for the treatment of male and female masturbation throughout contemporary pop culture. Women continue to enjoy the feel of their own bodies — the audience is routinely invited to join in on their pleasure — whereas male masturbation is framed as seedy, as depraved, if not, as in Alexander’s case, inextricably bound to neurosis.

I read Portnoy’s primarily for prurient reasons as I began my own journey into puberty, and — be it by coincidence or by design — I’d end up reading books like Everyman, The Dying Animal and The Human Stain as I embarked on my first forays into love and sex. Those Roth books held similar power over me.

I’d write my book Cheating on the Sisterhood — an academic treatise on my relationship with an older, damaged man — and quote Roth extensively.

Nearly a decade on, the timeline still feels fuzzy to me: have I always been drawn to older shop-soiled men because I read a little too much Roth in my formative years? Alternatively, did I seek out Roth to justify my own predilections?

It’s no surprise that feminists have given Roth a thorough going-over — and Roth, of course, replied in kind.

For me, though, the takeaway will always be his delectable peep-through-the-curtain at the highs and horrors of human sexuality, and the myths and messiness of masculinity.

That his prose prompts just as much recoiling as rapture is central to its charm.

© Lauren Rosewarne 2018