The late novelist Philip Roth was something of a fortune teller. One of his final novels, Exit Ghost (2007), concerns a man burdened with cancer and a deteriorating mental state. Despite this, Exit Ghost is preoccupied with a different worry: a biographer seeking to unearth unflattering secrets of a deceased writer's life.
The fear of posthumous cancellation formed the basis of one of Roth’s last literary ventures. The writer (who died in 2018) looks particularly prescient now that he is apparently facing a similar fate, thanks to two biographies “revealing” details of his past. The Sunday Times wrote: “MeToo is ready to close the book on Philip Roth.” The Daily Mail echoed the sentiment.
The charge against Roth? He was a misogynist, a narcissist, a sex-obsessive with a penchant for younger women. None of these allegations are the mark of an upstanding man, of course. But equally, none of it is hugely surprising. His books contain deeply unkind portrayals of women; and his ex-wife published a memoir in 1996 casting Roth in this familiarly unpleasant light.
Roth’s legacy is unlikely to be totally compromised by this flash-in-a-pan moment, but the furore speaks to a deeper phenomenon. In the past decade a unique strain of priggishness has been injected into society. Moral purity has been erected as the ultimate standard for everyone, not simply politicians, but artists and writers. It is not enough to dislike Roth as a private individual. On account of his personal failings we must dismiss his cultural output too. This dynamic, as Hadley Freeman put it in the Guardian, says that “if you don’t like everything about a public figure, then you can’t like anything”.
This impulse is the same one that makes us demand celebrities declare their political views; an impulse that says we cannot enjoy the music of a pop star if they secretly support Donald Trump. It is why Taylor Swift proved she was a Democrat after years of suspicion she was not. That her political beliefs had no bearing on her work seemed to elude the grasp of many.
Moral purity has been erected as the ultimate standard for everyone, not simply politicians, but artists and writers
This style of social justice movement gets a lot of things right. Speaking truth to power and attempting to dismantle societal unfairness is good, obviously. But it has obliterated any space for nuance. We have lost our ability to acknowledge that bad people can create worthwhile things. And have gained an inclination to viciously condemn those we believe are morally impure in order to demonstrate that we are not.
Novelist Sandra Newman said Roth’s books are on “the wrong side of Me Too”. This is true. The Bible may not hold up in court by the same standards. If we believe art and literature exist only to act as moral guidance then perhaps Roth should be consigned to the scrap heap. But following that logic, we would have very little left over. Ernest Hemingway was not known for his private loveliness. His character Brett Ashley in Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises is a dissolute, needy, flighty and impulsive woman. And, if the private character of the artist undermines the value of their output, we may as well forget Picasso and cubism altogether.
But there is a good reason why we value these things in spite of their so-called moral failings. Art, like life, exists in these murky areas. And the truth it speaks to is morally ambiguous and complicated. The requirement for moral purity may extend to activism and politicians and government press releases. But it is too great a burden to place on books and paintings, forms which exist to force us to confront uncomfortable realities.
Prettiness and kitsch
If we believed that morally perfect art, created by morally perfect artists, was the only thing deserving of our attention and awe then our galleries would be filled with paintings of trees and our bookshelves with tales of impenetrably perfect heroes. This would be a shame not simply because trees and perfect heroes are boring, but because they would fail to express anything about who we are. Picasso may have exacted unending misery on those around him. But we are capable of loathing the man, while still admiring Guernica as one of the greatest protests against the horrors of war.
Art, like life, exists in murky areas. And the truth it speaks to is morally ambiguous and complicated
If we continue on the path of dismissing Philip Roth’s novels on account of his private life, we would soon be overwhelmed with works of uncontroversial sentimentality, prettiness and kitsch. Perhaps we should turn the National Gallery into a giant Cath Kidston outlet while we are at it.
In an obituary of Roth, Zadie Smith wrote: “At an unusually tender age, he learned not to write to make people think well of him, nor to display to others, through fiction, the right sort of ideas, so they could think him the right sort of person.” Roth may well have been an unpleasant man in private, who wrote his personal failings into his characters, but there remains something uncomfortably heroic about what Smith describes.