[Sentences ]Weekend Read: Roth’s (Justified) Complaint, or “Document Dated July 27, 1969” | Harper's Magazine

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Weekend Read: Roth’s (Justified) Complaint, or “Document Dated July 27, 1969”



Should novelists respond to their critics? That was the question of a trio of posts from a few weeks back under the title, “An Egg in Return” (1, 2, 3).

A number of novelists have since written to me on the subject. Some tell stories of critics to whom they had responded directly and privately and the largely unsatisfying responses—from the insufficient to the hostile—they received in return. The upshot, overall, seems to be that public engagement between a creative writer and critic is considered either unbecoming (“One comes off as defensive”) or pointless (“You can’t dispute taste”).

Well, my sense remains that not only can one dispute taste without sounding defensive but, when driven to it by what one deems critical stupidity, one must. Not, of course, to the end of proving that one’s creative enterprise should be liked; rather, to the end of suggesting, to other readers of an unappreciative review, that the critic’s argument was misleading—a suggestion best made through a public, well-reasoned, well-argued rebuttal.

Though I continue to believe that what literary conversation we do have about fiction would be fortified were more creative writers to thoughtfully return critical fire now and again, I concede that the likelihood of such a craze sweeping through our novelistic ranks is low indeed. So low, in fact, that very richest example I’ve been able to find of a novelist adequately replying to a critic was written but, alas, never sent.

The novelist in question was Philip Roth; the critic, Diana Trilling. In August of 1969, in this magazine, Trilling reviewed J.R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself (full text available). Within that review, she compared Ackerley’s book to Roth’s of earlier in the year, Portnoy’s Complaint.

Trilling found Roth’s novel lacking. We know, though, that Roth judged Trilling’s reasoning lacking, too. We know this because Roth produced a letter in response that, with clarity and rigor, succeeds at dismantling the credibility of Trilling’s case.

And yet, Roth never sent the letter. Rather, he delivered it to his excellent collection of non-fiction, Reading Myself and Others. Nonetheless, his letter remains a model of how fiction writers might approach one facet of their creative lives. Prefaced by his explanation, from Reading Myself and Others, of how his response to Trilling came into being and why it wasn’t sent, Roth’s letter follows here (reprinted with thanks to the Wylie Agency). I only wish it had reached this magazine nearly 40 years ago.

Document Dated July 27, 1969

by Philip Roth

The two-thousand-word document that follows is an example of a flourishing subliterary genre with a long and moving history, yet one that is all but unknown to the general public. It is a letter written by a novelist to a critic, but never mailed. I am the novelist, Diana Trilling is the critic, and it was not mailed for the reasons such letters rarely are mailed, or written, for that matter, other than in the novelist’s skull:

  1. Writing (or imagining writing) the letter is sufficiently cathartic: by 4 or 5 A.M. the dispute has usually been settled to the novelist’s satisfaction and he can turn over and get a few hours’ sleep.

  2. It is unlikely that the critic is about to have his reading corrected by the novelist anyway.

  3. One does not wish to appear piqued in the least–let alone to be seething–neither to the critic nor to the public that follows these duels when they are conducted out in the open for all to see.

  4. Where is it engraved in stone that a novelist shall feel himself to be “understood” any better than anyone else does?

  5. The advice of friends and loved ones: “For God’s sake, forget it.”

So novelists–for all that they are by nature usually an obsessive and responsive lot–generally do forget it, or continually remind themselves that they ought to be forgetting it during the sieges of remembering. And, given the conventions that make a person feel like something of an ass if he does “stoop” to rebutting his critics, in the long run it may even be in the writer’s interest that he does forget it and goes on with his work. It is another matter as to whether it is in the interest of the literary culture that these inhibiting conventions have as much hold on us as they do, and that as a result the reviewer, critic, or book journalist generally finds himself in the comfortable position of a prosecution witness who, having given his testimony, need not face cross-examination by the defense.

July 27, 1969

Dear Mrs. Trilling:

I have just finished reading your essay-review in the August Harper’s, in which you compare the novel Portnoy’s Complaint to the book under review, J. R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself. If I may, I’d like to distinguish for you between myself and “Mr. Roth,” the character in your review who is identified as the “author of Portnoy’s Complaint.”

On the basis of your reading of his novel, you contend that “Mr. Roth” has a “position [he is] fortifying”; he is in this novel “telling us” things “by extension” about social determinism; he is, on the evidence of the novel, a “child of an indiscriminative mass society” as well as “representative…of post-Freudian American literary culture”; his “view of life” in the novel-as opposed to Ackerley’s in his memoir–does not “propose…the virtues of courage, kindliness, responsibility”; and his “view of life [is] grimly deterministic.”

Didactic, defiant, harsh, aggressively against, your “Mr. Roth” is a not uncommon sort of contemporary writer, and in view of the structure of your review, a perfect ficelle, aiding us in attaining a clearer vision of the issue you are dramatizing. Useful, however, as he may be as a rhetorical device, and clearly recognizable as a type, he is of course as much your invention as the Portnoys are mine. True, both “Mr. Roth” and I are Jews, but strong an identifying mark as that is, it is not enough, you will concede, to make us seem one and the same writer, especially as there is a pertinent dissimilarity to consider: the sum of our work, the accumulation of fictions from which the “positions” and “views” we hold might, with caution, be extrapolated.

Your “Mr. Roth” is a “young man from whom we can expect other books.” As I understand you, he has written none previous to the one you discuss, a book whose “showy” literary manner wherein he “achieves his effects by the broadest possible strokes”–is accounted for, if not dictated by, the fact that he is a “child of an indiscriminative mass society.” You describe him as an “accomplished … craftsman,” but so far, it would seem, strictly within the confines of his showy style.

Unlike “Mr. Roth,” I have over the past thirteen years published some dozen short stories, a novella, and three novels. one of the novels, published two years before “Mr. Roth’s” book, is as removed as a book could be from the spirit of Portnoy’s Complaint. If anything proves that I am not the “Mr. Roth” of your review, it is this novel, When She Was Good, for where “Mr. Roth’s” manner in his book is “showy,” mine here is deliberately ordinary and unobtrusive; where his work is “funny”–you speak of “fiercely funny self-revelation”–mine is proper and poker-faced; and where you find “Mr. Roth” on the basis of his book “representative … of post-Freudian American literary culture,” another critic of some prestige found me, on the basis of When She Was Good, to be hopelessly “retrograde.”

Admittedly, an alert reader familiar with both books might find in them a similar preoccupation with the warfare between parents and children. Reading your review, I was struck in fact by the following sentence–it almost seemed that you were about to compare Portnoy’s Complaint, not with J. R. Ackerley’s memoir, but with my own When She Was Good: “It turns out, however, that strangely different enterprises can proceed from the same premise. Portnoy, full of complaint because of his sexual fate, is bent on tracking down the source of his grievances…” Well, so too with my heroine, Lucy Nelson (if “sexual” is allowed its fullest meaning). Wholly antithetic in cultural and moral orientation, she is, in her imprisoning passion and in the role she assumes of the enraged offspring, very much his soul mate. I have even thought that, at some level of consciousness, “Mr. Roth’s” book might have developed as a complementary volume to my own. Though not necessarily “typical,” Alexander Portnoy and Lucy Nelson seem to me, in their extreme resentment and disappointment, like the legendary unhappy children out of two familiar American family myths. In one book it is the Jewish son railing against the seductive mother, in the other the Gentile daughter railing against the alcoholic father (equally loved, hated, and feared–the most unforgettable character she ever met). Of course, Lucy Nelson is seen to destroy herself within an entirely different fictional matrix, but that would result, among other reasons, from the enormous difference between the two environments that inspire their rage as well as their shared sense of loss and nostalgia.

I would also like to point out that the “virtues of courage, kindliness, responsibility” that “Mr. Roth” does not seem to you to “propose” in his book, are, in my own, proposed as a way of life in the opening pages of the novel and continue to haunt the book thereafter (or so I intended). Here is the sentence with which the book begins–it introduces the character of Willard Carroll, the grandfather in whose home the angry heroine is raised: “Not to be rich, not to be famous, not to be mighty, not even to be happy, but to be civilized–that was the dream of his life.” The chapter proceeds then to enlarge Willard’s idea of “civilization,” revealing through a brief family history how he has been able to practice the virtues of courage, kindliness, and responsibility, as he understands them. Only after Willard’s way has been sufficiently explored does the focus of the novel turn in stages toward Lucy, and to her zeal for what she takes to be a civilized life, what she understands courage to be and responsibility to mean, and the place she assigns to kindliness in combat.

Now I won’t claim that I am the one proposing those virtues here, since Daddy Will–as his family calls him–does not speak or stand for me in the novel any more than his granddaughter Lucy does. On this issue it may be that I am not so far from “Mr. Roth” after all, and that in my novel (as perhaps in his) virtues and values are “proposed” as they generally are in fiction–neither apart from the novel’s predominant concern nor in perfect balance with it, but largely through the manner of presentation: through what might be called the sensuous aspects of fiction–tone, mood, voice, and, among other things, the juxtaposition of the narrative events themselves.

“Grimly deterministic” I am not. There again “Mr. Roth” and I part company. You might even say that the business of choosing is the primary occupation of any number of my characters. I am thinking of souls even so mildly troubled as Neil Klugman and Brenda Patimkin, the protagonists of the novella Goodbye, Columbus, which I wrote some ten years before “Mr. Roth” appeared out of nowhere with his grimly deterministic view of life. I am thinking too of the entire anguished cast of characters in my first novel, Letting Go, written seven years before “Mr. Roth’s,” where virtually a choice about his life has to be made by some character or other on every page–and there are 630 pages. Then there are the central characters in the stories published along with Goodbye, Columbus, “Defender of the Faith,” “The Conversion of the Jews,” “Epstein,” “Eli, the Fanatic,” and “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings,” each of whom is seen making a conscious, deliberate, even willful choice beyond the boundary lines of his life, and just so as to give expression to what in his spirit will not be grimly determined, by others, or even by what he had himself taken to be his own nature.

It was no accident that led me to settle upon Daddy Will as the name for Lucy’s modest but morally scrupulous and gently tenacious grandfather; nor was it accidental (or necessarily admirable–that isn’t the point) that I came up with Liberty Center as the name for the town in which Lucy Nelson rejects every emancipating option in favor of a choice that only further subjugates her to her grievance and her rage. The issue of authority over one’s life is very much at the center of this novel, as it has been in my other fiction. Though it goes without saying that the names a novelist assigns to people and places are generally no more than decoration, and do practically nothing of a book’s real work, they at least signaled to me, during the writing, some broader implications to Lucy’s dilemma. That a passion for freedom–chiefly from the bondage of a heartbreaking past–plunges Lucy Nelson into a bondage more gruesome and ultimately insupportable is the pathetic and ugly irony on which the novel turns. I wonder if that might not also describe what befalls the protagonist of Portnoy’s Complaint. Now saying this may make me seem to you as “grimly deterministic” a writer as “Mr. Roth,” whereas I suggest that to imagine a story that revolves upon the ironies of the struggle for personal freedom, grim as they may be–ridiculous as they may also be–is to do something more interesting, more novelistic, than what you call “fortifying a position.”

As for “literary manner,” I have, as I indicated, a track record more extensive than your “Mr. Roth’s.” The longer works particularly have been dramatically different in the kinds of “strokes” by which the author “achieves his effects”–so that a categorical statement having to do with my position or view might not account in full for the varieties of fiction I’ve written.

I am not arguing that my fiction is superior to “Mr. Roth’s” work for this reason–only that they are works of an entirely different significance from those of such an ideological writer (whose book you describe as the “latest offensive in our escalating literary-political war upon society”). Obviously I am not looking to be acquitted, as a person, of having some sort of view of things, nor would I hold that my fiction aspires to be a slice of life and nothing more. I am saying only that, as with any novelist, the presentation and the “position” are inseparable, and I don’t think a reader would be doing me (or even himself) justice if, for tendentious or polemical purposes, he were to divide the one into two, as you do with “Mr. Roth.”

It seems to me that “Mr. Roth” might be “showy,” as you call it, for a reason. His use of the “broadest possible strokes to achieve his effects” might even suggest something more basic to a successful reading of the book than that he is, as you swiftly theorize, a “child of an indiscriminative mass society.” What sort of child? I wonder. And what multitudes of experience are encompassed within that dismissive phrase, “an indiscriminative mass society”? You almost seem there to be falling into a position as deterministic about literary invention as the one you believe “Mr. Roth” promulgates about human possibility. You describe the book as “farce with a thesis”: yet, when you summarize in a few sentences the philosophical and social theses of the novel (“Mr. Roth’s [book] blames society for the fate we suffer as human individuals and, legitimately or not, invokes Freud on the side of his own grimly deterministic view of life…”), not only is much of the book’s material pushed over the edge of a cliff to arrive at this conclusion, but there is no indication that the reader’s experience of a farce (if that is what you think it is) might work against the grain of the dreary meaning you assign the book–no indication that the farce might itself be the thesis, if not what you call the “pedagogic point.”

Accounting for the wide audience that “Mr. Roth’s” book has reached, you say that the “popular success of a work often depends as much on its latent as on its overt content.” And as often not–but even if I am not as thoroughgoing a Freudian in such matters as you appear to be, I do agree generally. A similar explanation has even greater bearing, as I see it, upon the authentic power of a literary work, if “latent content” is taken to apply to something more than what is simply not expressed in so many words. I am thinking again of the presentation of the content, the broad strokes, the air of showiness, the fiercely funny self-revelation, and all that such means might be assumed to communicate about the levels of despair, self-consciousness, skepticism, vigor, and high spirits at which a work has been conceived.

You state at one conclusive point in your review, “Perhaps the unconscious…is…more hidden from us than the author of Portnoy’s Complaint realizes.” May I suggest that perhaps “Mr. Roth’s” view of life is more hidden from certain readers in his wide audience than they imagine, more imbedded in parody, burlesque, slapstick, ridicule, insult, invective, lampoon, wisecrack, in nonsense, in levity, in play–in, that is, the methods and devices of Comedy, than their own view of life may enable them to realize.


Philip Roth

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