Resolved: The Art Is Not All. Character Counts, Too (or Goodbye, Philip Roth)
Second in an ongoing series, Bending the Moral Arc
It’s hard to hear the dog-not-barking amidst a Category-5 media-storm. But this phantom bark is key to a more humane and mature Art and America.
The media-storm in question? The one that has razed the reputations of both a “giant” of American literature, Philip Roth, and his authorized biographer, Blake Bailey (also here). Roth’s reputation as the reigning “bad boy” of American letters thrived over a 50-year career, while his misogyny — evident both in his own life and his treatment of female characters in 31 books, mostly novels — though giving off a bad odor, was deemed not redolent enough, in his time, to interfere with his strong odds of winning the Nobel prize for literature.
But autre temps, autre moeurs: Now the whole riven edifice comes crashing down — finally — when the creepy past of Roth’s biographer suddenly pierces through the murk. Which past is: Back in Louisiana, when he was a middle-school teacher, Bailey groomed some of his girl students for sex, claiming his prize(s) when they later came of age. In this period, this piece of work was awarded the state’s Humanities Teacher of the Year award. Allegations of rape have now also been made. All of which has forced Bailey’s publisher to halt distribution of the biography and his literary agent to drop him as client.
And the dog-not-barking here? It is the trite cultural insistence, regnant since forever but enforced especially ferociously in the “anything-goes” postwar-World War II period, that, well, anything and everything does, in fact, go. That is, that the above-cited behavior — misogyny, grooming underage girls for sex, among any number of other depravities, plus, crucially, the out-of-whack exercise of power central to it all — all of it, while icky and, yes, “tough,” was immaterial and irrelevant to the Art created, be it novel, play, film, whatever. The Art was all, goes this “ethos,” while the character of the artist, not so much, with any questionable behavior filed away under “the ambiguities of Art” or the “contrarieties” of the artist.
But, interesting development: In the Roth-Bailey brouhaha still aswirl, this cultural argument — that absolutely anything goes in the quest for Art — is nowhere being made by any Truly Serious Writer. Anybody? Step up to the mic, please, make your now-indefensible case.
And what silenced that dog, finally? It was not any one artistic voice endeavoring to make the moral point that depravity is, well, wrong. Nor was the counter-force any one literary critic, too many of whom abide by the anything-goes ethos. One exception: Slate’s Stephen Metcalf writing for The Los Angeles Times, who, before the media-storm broke exposing Bailey, wrote of Roth that he “wondered how long it would take to get the rotten flavor of this man out of my mouth.”
No, it took something far larger than one moral artist or one literary critic to unmask the cultural rot. It took a movement, a socio-cultural one, a force of History — the #MeToo movement, founded in 2006 but in 2017 becoming a juggernaut, still powering its way to this day, with revelation after revolting revelation of criminal acts committed by various famous men against women in their employ. Enough! Enough, these legions of women are demanding: Enough with the salacious quip, the inquiry into sex lives, and worse, the groping, the assaults, the rapes, the truncated or ruined careers, the trauma, the sorrow.
Tellingly, in reaction to this burgeoning juggernaut, Roth (who died in 2018) told his biographer the only thing he finally lived in fear of was falling prey to #MeToo — a data-point Bailey revealed on “Amanpour & Co.,” citing (as I recall) Roth’s behavior with a teenaged girl who was friends of the daughter of his second wife, English actress Claire Bloom, behavior Bailey characterized (again as I recall) as “inappropriate but not illegal.” Per the program’s website, this interview and full transcript are “not currently available,” so I cannot verify my recall. But if that wording is not exact, the meaning is, because when Bailey’s own past — grooming young girls for sex — later burst into light, he used a similar weaselly formulation: “deplorable” but “not illegal.”
And Roth’s act he so feared being outed? Of the above-cited teen he said: “What’s the point of having a pretty girl in the house if you don’t f*** her?” (Just to be clear: Roth said this to the girl herself.) Per The New Republic’s Laura Marsh: “Bailey ascribes this to Roth’s ‘impulse to mock a certain kind of bourgeois piety.’ What?” Bailey’s main precept as Roth’s biographer was, as Bailey said, “not taking too prim or judgmental a view of a man who had this florid love life.” But: In the eyes of the world, one’s man’s florid is another man’s predatory; in this pairing of biographer and subject, the predatory met. As The Atlantic’s Judith Shulevitz put it, Roth had lots of “baggage” on this particular point and Bailey proved “an eager bellhop.”
We are deep into sleazy territory here.
But: “Sleazy” has been permitted in American culture for decades. Including in writer’s workshops. I participated in three different workshops over a decade, and in all of them the “protocol” was the same: Thou shalt not critique your fellow writer’s subject matter, thou shalt confine your critique to enabling the stated objective….no matter how sleazy. Sleaze was rationalized as “part of being human.” “Depravity?”: Don’t speak of it. My worst workshop experience: being trapped in endless rewrites of a fellow-fellow’s play about a man fantasizing raping a woman he sees regularly at his subway stop. If one raised a moral peep (as I did), one got closed down as “prudish”; one could even get a talking-to for being “disruptive” (as I was; I argued back that I would not comply in my own abasement). Good to know, now, that roaring down those tracks was a force of History called #MeToo. But back then, in the Rothian era, there was no debate about the anything-goes ethos; it went, it was ironclad.
Thus, regarding the portrayal of women, any argument in workshop for women’s dignity and humanity was hooted down as “ridiculous,” “bathetic” — “Dignity? Gimme a break!” I wonder how, in these precincts, the new reality of women’s dignity and humanity made resoundingly manifest by #MeToo is being taken onboard (or not). I wonder how a plot-line of misogynist “great” writer undone by misogynist biographer would fly: It’d be deemed no doubt “implausible” or “too neat,” but, attend the brouhaha. Literature — Art — has yet to treat misogyny as profoundest moral injury, the injury going in all directions. Until then, misogynist artists, blind to their own self-inflicted injury, can enjoy the jet-fuel of their cruel passions. But what, truly, is the worth of the resulting “Art”?
While I gave up writer’s workshops (but not writing) 20 years ago because of this anything-goes protocol, I think now of the dozens of women I met there and at writer’s conferences — women of real talent, who worked from a hard-won moral sensibility and had a distinctive literary style, smart women who wrote smartly of smart women, but whose writing careers were truncated or netted out as far less than they deserved, who burnished their credentials and paid their dues but were forever kept waiting in the anteroom, who gave up altogether or died, still writing. (One such woman, now dead, I cherish for citing my play about keeping a man under siege in Sarajevo going with my phone calls as reflective of tikkun olam, the Jewish idea of healing the world.) The sea in which we women have had to swim — a sea made toxic by “great” male writers like Roth, John Updike, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, whose books I’ve thrown across the room for their woman-hatred (the first Roth I pitched was Portnoy’s Complaint) — sadly, this toxic sea has sunk innumerable talented women. I think of the poem, “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing,” by the excellent William Butler Yeats: “For how can you compete, / Being honor bred, with one / Who, were it proved he lies, / Were neither shamed in his own / Nor in his neighbors’ eyes.”
Well…. Usually the Poet has the last word, but, mirabile dictu, maybe not this time. Yeats speaks of honor and shame — honor as a fine thing but a vulnerability, a drag; shame as the only weapon to combat those who dishonor, but being nonexistent, not available. I think Yeats would be gobsmacked at what’s happened a century after he graced us with his poem: a movement come into being, wielding the only weapon — shame — capable of quelling the dishonorable, of righting a terrible wrong against half of humanity. In the end, Life will judge us all, but judgment is just only if we, all of us, are seen in our full dignity and humanity.
Justice: At long last Justice, in some small measure and tragically late for too many, is being done. Philip Roth was right to fear how #MeToo might impact his reputation; this is far more than a free-speech issue, this is a moral matter resolved by the force of History. I would say if the reigning “bad boy” of American letters feared the movement, then the movement made its point. I can also say, if I may: Working my sword-arm on behalf of women all these years, in workshop and in life, has been — well, not exactly fun, but it has felt heroic, a mode diametrically opposite the anti-heroic mode Roth projected in his fiction and perfected in his life. And he is the one who died fearful for his past…. Early on as a writer, after publishing the novella Goodbye, Columbus, Roth felt the “virtuous” was destroying him, but “when I let the repellent in, I found that I was alive on my own terms.” That statement, about ditching one’s moral compass, I find indescribably sad.
To close: With #MeToo’s victory for sexual justice, in the shaming of misogynists and misogyny; and in the recent victory powered by #Black Lives Matter for racial justice, in the verdict against a white police officer for the cruel killing of a Black man, George Floyd: Maybe, just maybe, America can begin to reverse its decline. Anything-goes must go. We must operate, instead, with our moral compass, the compass newly recovered.
To a more mature and humane Art. To a more mature and humane America.