“But it’s John Updike in particular that a lot of them seem to hate.”

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Upon Philip Roth’s sorta-kinda retirement announcement (my sense is that nothing’s final until everyone is dead) we have been treated to encomia online, and renewed calls that he be given a Nobel. I can’t help but notice that most of them are by men. Meanwhile, on Facebook, which seems to be emerging as the premier venue for “Thoughts I Am Not Willing to Have Twitter Fights With Total Strangers About,” most of the women I know registered anywhere from indifference to hatred on the scale.

It put me in mind of David Foster Wallace’s old classification of Roth as, with Updike and Mailer, one of the “Great Male Narcissists.” In the piece, Wallace cites this famous litany of insults from readers who are “mostly female,” directed at Updike but also, it struck me, applicable to Roth, if you bend that way:

“Just a penis with a thesaurus.”

“Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?”

“Makes misogyny seem literary the same way Limbaugh makes fascism seem funny.”

The piece has been hashed and rehashed by the likes of Katie Roiphe and the far more careful and insightful reader Elaine Blair, and I don’t want to dwell on it too much, not least because it’s really an Updike exorcism, not a Roth. But I’ve always had that “mostly female” stick in my craw. On the one hand I don’t have a problem with Wallace identifying the gender gap. On the other, his implication that it mostly takes the form of ad hominem on women’s part is disconcerting. Blair has a nicer way of putting it than that: “an amazingly frank expression of anxiety about female readers.”

Combine the gendered thing about Roth (to which there are surely exceptions) with the timing of the announcement and it’s all a little too… something. Sure, Roth gave up the ghost a week ago and it took awhile to surface because the American commentariat apparently doesn’t read French or Italian. But it hit the sidewalk in a week that began with political pundits braying about the need for demographic change in the Republican party, and ended on the release of a giant blockbuster film by and about these old “establishment” white guys.

I am still processing all of it, but it seems to me that while there may be a shift in butts-in-seats (or in the voting booth) political power, there still isn’t one in the matrices of higher cultural respect. It’s not that any individual here doesn’t deserve their acclaim when considered in a vacuum. I’m not a Roth fan but my antipathy doesn’t extend far enough to really critique him on literary grounds. And I’ve heard that Lincoln is good. It’s that, in the aggregate, the culture still imagines itself as moved and shaken by white men, and that lifts up their work in a way the rest of us… don’t quite enjoy.

I’m aware that pointing that out is considered mean or churlish or disrespectful (there’s that word again), and yet… it’s eating at me, today. So I do it anyway.


Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →