Late-20th century male authors and the way they might look at you

A story about Philip Roth leering at ‘colleens’ in Dublin exposes a Neanderthal attitude

In 1991, when Philip Roth was receiving a literary prize in New York, his friend and fellow novelist William Styron delivered a testimonial which recalled a trip the pair had made to Dublin some years earlier. Having tried and failed to rent a car for a trip to the countryside, the two titans of US fiction set out for a "Joycean trek" around the city, Styron said, but were less than impressed by what they saw.

“Philip was in fine form as we strolled the streets, dispensing good-natured cultural perceptions,” Styron remembered. “The Irish were really an incredibly repressed people, he said; you could tell this from the girls. You couldn’t eyeball them directly. They simply weren’t used to being admired. Just watch, he told me, give them a look and they’ll raise their arms to hide their bosoms. I scoffed at this, trying to be ethnically correct, but actually he was right: the public modesty was extravagant, and we received not even furtive glances in return as we submitted these colleens to the glare of our X-ray eyes.”

More surprising is the fact that Roth and Styron didn't get a box for their troubles from one of the colleens

There is much to chew upon here, even before we get to the “long, vile meal of potatoes and gristle” which the two gallants are later forced to endure in an expensive hotel on O’Connell Street.

First, there's the yawning chasm that separates us from a time (less than 30 years ago, remember) when a world-famous author could happily and publicly (the reminiscence was subsequently published in the New York Times) share this exercise in leering-as-anthropology. More surprising is the fact that Roth and Styron didn't get a box for their troubles from one of the "colleens" upon whose mammaries they fixed their X-ray glare.

It’s unclear when exactly Roth and Styron paid their disappointing visit – I’m guessing sometime between the early 1970s and early 1980s – but some aspects do ring true. Most of us, for example, will recognise this sort of a day in Dublin:

"We continued our aimless search for something – pleasure, experience, enlightenment, aesthetic grace, we didn't quite know. But it was a forlorn quest. At Trinity College the great library we wanted to see was covered in hideous scaffolding. We went on to contemplate the River Liffey, the mythic riverrun of Joyce's stupendous vision, and saw that it was full of mud and garbage. It began to drizzle from a leaden sky."

The photographic evidence is clear. Dublin at that time did have a particularly grubby, down-at-heel quality – all cheap plastic facades and crumbling decay (something that hasn’t disappeared entirely). But, apart from derisively snorting, what should we make of Roth’s fearless insights into the Irish sexual psyche of that time?

This literary priapism has started to look as dated as the puritanism against which it was originally rebelling

A couple of novels published in the past year touch on the subject of sex in Dublin in the 1970s. Anne Enright’s Actress and Douglas Kennedy’s The Great Wide Open are very different in style and theme, but there’s a remarkable consistency to the sex scenes in both. Discomfort is a given, and embarrassment inevitable. Freezing bedsits, polyester sheets, beerbellies and greying Y-fronts feature. Alcohol, obviously, is the sole lubricant. And consent is sometimes unclear. It’s a long way from Normal People, where adjustable central heating, cotton bedclothes, easily available contraception and the disappearance of clerical collars seem to have swept all that awkwardness, fear and disappointment away (to be replaced, unsurprisingly, by newer, fresher forms of awkwardness, fear and disappointment).

Up until fairly recently, the majority view might have been that this was all part of a progressive liberation in which Roth and his ilk played a key role. With the trusty pen of truth in one hand and a jar of chopped liver in the other, the great male writers of the late 20th century would free us all with their unwavering honesty about where they wanted to place their penises and the urgency with which they needed to do so. More recently, though, this literary priapism has started to look as dated as the puritanism against which it was originally rebelling. As a result, the reputations of previously unassailable figures such as John Updike look grubbier, smaller and seedier.

The schoolboy narcissism of Styron’s anecdote obviously hasn’t aged well. But does any of this matter? Well, the backlash against the not-at-all-veiled misogyny which runs like a seam through much literature written by men in the second half of the 20th century may act as a barrier for some time to appreciating the merits of some of their work. But that’s what happens when the culture takes a turn in another direction and the colleens decide they won’t be taking it any more.