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Why I wish I'd never met Philip Roth



Blake Bailey’s highly anticipated ‘definitive biography’ of Philip Roth was cancelled by WW Norton at the end of April when Bailey was accused of sexual assault. His agent dropped him; his publisher cancelled the book tour and cut all ties with the author. (The biography has since been picked up by Skyhorse.) I’ve never met Bailey, but I’ll never forget meeting his subject: Philip Roth.

An image of author Philip Roth is projected onscreen as he speaks via satellite video feed to the audience during the PBS panel of "AMERICAN MASTERS Philip Roth: Unmasked" (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

It was a crisp October day in 2002 when we piled into the classroom at Columbia University’s Graduate School of the Arts. We were young. We were nervous. Soon we’d be talking to a writer who’d won the Pulitzer, the National Book Award (three times), the National Book Critics Circle Award (three times) and the Pen/Faulkner.

Those prizes were for his early work. Our class had read his latest, The Dying Animal. I was one of the few who hadn’t read any of his other novels and although I’d found The Dying Animal well-written, I hated the book. It began with an old college professor seducing a beautiful young student and went downhill from there.          

But I was excited to meet the author. We all were. The room buzzed as we waited for Roth to walk in and breathe the same air as us.

Then, he appeared: tall, smiling, surrounded by an aura of greatness.

Our teacher introduced Roth, who sat at the head of the table and read from his book. He joked. He gave writerly advice, ‘If you get an idea, even a small one, find a pen. Write it down!’ And I wondered how many great Rothian ideas had slipped away because he’d been without a pen.

My classmates asked fawning questions about his book. I was too nervous. Roth took up more than the space of his body. His gestures were large, his ego tremendous.


'If we allow writers the freedom to express views that are objectionable, even abhorrent, then we can respond and have a meaningful open debate.'


Then my classmate Laura (name changed to protect her identity) raised her hand. Laura was one of the better writers: smart, eloquent, to the point. I can’t remember her exact wording, but she asked about an oral sex scene in the book when the professor forces himself on his student. Laura referred to this as ‘rape’. The room went still. It was a fair question.

We all watched as a shadow came over Philip Roth’s face. Then he started to yell. Spittle formed on the corners of his mouth. He didn’t answer the question. He silenced Laura for daring to ask it, silenced her, just as he’d silenced the female character in his novel.

It was suddenly very hot in that Columbia classroom. There must’ve been a way our teacher brought the discussion round, but I don’t remember anything else that was said.

I remember Laura standing in the hall, shaking. Because of this, I never read another Roth novel; I couldn’t read his work without the shadow of his bad behaviour on the page. While we can’t conflate accusations against Roth’s biographer with his subject, this recent Blake Baily scandal invites us to revisit, through a 21st century lens, the world of someone considered one of the definitive writers of the 20th century.

Critics agree that Roth doesn’t do justice to his female characters, but his early work is considered great, if imperfect — and isn’t every novel imperfect? I’m glad I never met Milan Kundera, or Sherman Alexie or dead writers like Shakespeare and Dickens because I love Bleak House. I taught Great Expectations last semester at the University of Queensland. Dickens’ female characters fall flat —they’re overly horrid or sickeningly sweet. But there are other reasons to read his work. He captures a 19th century London I can only visit through fiction. He shows the gruesome horrors of the French Revolution. His humorous critiques of lawyers and bureaucracy — ‘The Circumlocution Office’ — hold true today.

Charles Dickens left his wife after she’d borne him 10 children and lost almost all of her teeth. He left her for a nineteen-year-old actress. I’m really glad I never met Dickens.

But Charles Dickens was not the novels he wrote. Neither was Philip Roth.

If we require our writers to live up to the moral expectations of not only their time but our time (which when you think of it, is impossible) then our bookshelves will be bare. It begs the question of whether Roth’s novels would even find a publisher today. Surely Edgar Alan Poe’s short stories wouldn’t, not after he married his 13-year-old cousin. What a loss that would’ve been for the genre and for all the short story writers whose work was born from his.

Nearly every day now someone is accused, tried, and hung in a tweet. Maybe it’s time to bring back the pen name — as Elena Ferrante has done — so that we don’t equate the writer with their work.

I’m grateful to social media for the #MeToo movement; it’s given women a voice. I won’t defend Blake Baily’s alleged actions — but we should meaningfully contend with the question of what these allegations mean for Bailey’s work on Roth and for Roth himself. Should one or both be cancelled? Are Bailey’s words now without value? Are Roth’s?

Two distinct questions remain: what should we do with the work of historical and contemporary artists whose lives fail to live up to our moral standards, and what should we do with artists like Roth who air views we find retrograde and offensive?

Regarding the latter, we need to listen to women and have robust feminist discussions, but we can only do so if there’s something left to discuss. Avoiding a writer on moral grounds is every reader’s prerogative. But this responsibility should fall with the reader, not a Twitter mob. If we allow writers the freedom to express views that are objectionable, even abhorrent, then we can respond and have a meaningful open debate.

Regarding the former, it goes without saying that people need to be held responsible for unlawful actions. But this current digital tell-all age goes beyond that. We desire our writers to be celebrities and our celebrities to be flawless. Impeccable twenty-first century moral standards are an unfair expectation to place on anyone, let alone long-dead authors of classic works that fill our bookshops and libraries. Perhaps it’s as Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin said, ‘True literature can exist only where it is created, not by diligent and trustworthy functionaries, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and sceptics’.



Sarah KlenbortSarah Klenbort is a writer and sesional academic at Queensland University, where she teaches creative writing. She also teaches memoir at the Queensland Writers Centre. Sarah's work has appeared in Eureka Street, The Guardian, Best Australian Stories, Overland and other publications here and overseas.

Main image: An image of author Philip Roth is projected onscreen as he speaks via satellite video feed to the audience during the PBS panel of "AMERICAN MASTERS Philip Roth: Unmasked" (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Sarah Klenbort, Philip Roth, Blake Bailey, cancel culture, Dickens, Poe



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Existing comments

Well, this is a pain. I was hoping to watch a DVD of The Plot Against America this evening.

roy chen yee | 01 July 2021  

A reader finds a writer whose work she loves. Reading is a solitary activity and the reader fully responds to the work of the writer; she enters into the world of the work. This act is so intimate, so individual. However, there are two different aspects of the writer: what he presents on the page, and the person who may be a bit distant, or a raging egotist, in real life. We should remember that the famous writer is also a reader. Many of these thoughts that I've just written were relayed to me in a scholarly piece of writing 'Writer and Reader' by a person I've long admired: David Malouf. If meeting Mr. Malouf in person somehow disappointed me I would still read his work. The reason: he is a writer and I am his reader and that relationship has already been forged and will remain important to me. Thanks Sarah for an astute piece of writing.

Pam | 01 July 2021  

A beautifully balanced treatise; it surely opens the floor for discussion on the contemporary rejection of art because the artist or creator has some (significant) perceived character flaws, allegedly or proven, particularly if their works now contravenes the controversial. The foreword by a fictitious Dr. Ray (not me) in Nabokov's Lolita deals with the predatory dehumanizing of the victim and the novel examines the solipsism from the perspective of the perpetrator; it doesn't make it right, the combination makes the event occur. The writer exercises their right of character development and a work can be a Pulitzer winner or a flop with critics or the public but equally exhaust themselves, just look at the careers of Truman Capote or Harper Lee. Poignantly, this article hit ES same day as Bill Cosby is released and his convictions reportedly quashed on technicalities; the audience applauded the work once but then hated and publicly reviled the man, now he is found innocent. The art and literary world would be much the poorer without some acceptance of Zamyatin's theorum; somewhat like DaVinci carving up dead bodies to understand anatomy do we necessarily link the irksome with the artistic and does it devalue the appreciation?

ray | 01 July 2021  

Pam: ‘If meeting Mr. Malouf in person somehow disappointed me I would still read his work.’ Ray:‘ contemporary rejection of art because the artist or creator has some (significant) perceived character flaws…. do we necessarily link the irksome with the artistic and does it devalue the appreciation?’ Roth and Malouf are not Mickey Spillane. They are ostensibly ‘serious’ writers. If Malouf, like Roth, showed, by retreating to a lizard brain, that he was unable to explain his work, his work would be diminished because he was unable to explain it. It’s not so much that his lizard brain diminishes him as that in diminishing his work it has disrespected the hope that you brought to it. So, it was, at least partially, a bill of goods that you bought. If God turns red and forms spittle around his mouth when you query the Book of Job, shouldn’t you be looking for another God?

roy chen yee | 02 July 2021  

I enjoyed John Steinbeck’s evocative writing about the poor and migrant workers in the depression-era USA. But a recent biography, “Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck” by William Souder, reveals Steinbeck as another of those humanitarian novelists, like Charles Dickens, who were much kinder to Humanity than to the humans in their own family. When Steinbeck was 37, he started an affair with 19-year-old singer Gwen Conger. When his wife Carol found out, Steinbeck said: “I know you both love me, but I think we need to have a confrontation. Whichever of you ladies needs me most—that’s the woman I’m going to have”, and he retired to the bar. He later married Gwen and forced to have a number of abortions. She ultimately bore him two sons who despised him. Souter says of his son John IV, “the great epiphany of his childhood was realizing that his father was an asshole.” And how does one account for someone like Jean-Jacques Rousseau whose reputation, in part, rested on his theories of bringing up children, when he forced his own wife, Therese, to abandon, to almost certain death, all five of their own children?

Ross Howard | 02 July 2021  

I cannot forgive Roth for his bad treatment of Claire Bloom, detailed in her writing. Like his character Portnoy, I think Roth was a bit of an intellectual w---er. Many opinionati are really screwed up. I think he was.

Edward Fido | 03 July 2021  

To Roy, thanks for a great comment (your post of 2 July). In answer to your final question, I can only summon John 6:68.

Pam | 03 July 2021  

Edward, absolutely Portnoy is a self-centred, egotistical character; he like other male anti-heroes are developed purposefully and deliberately to have character flaws which may be amusing even if criminal in the case of Nabokov's Humbert and Portnoy's attempted rape of the Jewish girl in Israel. Neither is dealt with by the law for their sex crimes, they are shown to be punished in their minds, Portnoy effectively castrated by his continued hallucinations of the monkey falling; his most prized sexual urge which resulted in self-gratification that was his obsessive disorder is taken from him. Lolita's Humbert is similarly punished that he is faced with rejection; that destroys his solipsism that his vitim desires him - now he is empty. In some situations the writer is exploring the now very topical toxic masculinity and how the dehumanizing protagonist can be punished for their deeds by proxy with chronic regret; not repentant for their past behaviors but mourning for their loss of what made them happy. The silent psychologist in Portnoy is symbolic of the prison cell, the way out is to rehabilitate himself which may only come with self-awareness. The monkey lives... but is the monkey on his back.

ray | 03 July 2021  

Ross Howard: ‘how does one account….’ Easy. You call them ‘complex’ with ‘self-contradictions’ and expect normal standards to be diluted to accommodate them. Maybe give them two Holy Communions at Mass.

roy chen yee | 05 July 2021  

Ray: ‘absolutely Portnoy is….a monkey on his back.’ If, back in 2002, you had no pretensions to serious writing but were a reporter asked by your editor to do a straight report on someone called Harvey Weinstein, where would you start your article but with a scene like that? 2002 was pre-#MeToo, so maybe ‘Laura’ is a little more understanding now. Not that Phil wasn’t behaving like a doofus, even if the thesis of that book is quite a life-affirming one. The theme of the books cited by Ray is that your life is only as complicated as you make it. Having achieve complication, the onus is on you to head back towards normalcy instead of expecting normalcy to dilute its standards and head towards you.

roy chen yee | 05 July 2021  

'If God turns red and forms spittle around his mouth when you query the Book of Job, shouldn’t you be looking for another God?' A very good question, Roy! Given the ever-popular (and misinformed) understanding of the Book of Job, one is forced to ask about why the God you so cherish in these columns behaves, as we both appear to agree, in that distinctly odd and retributive manner. Or is there not perhaps also a complexity and self-contradiction in you, as in the rest of us, that lends insight to your pro-excommunication, anti-Biden position?

Michael Furtado | 05 July 2021  

Michael Furtado: ‘(and misinformed) understanding’ Given your understanding that Adam and Eve did not sin but were arrogant, your informed understanding about Job is?

roy chen yee | 06 July 2021  

roy, I am disinclined to engage with your comments because they appear to be fractious and present your own assumptions then lead off down various directions. Given that you've apparently quoted my whole comment paragraph from "absolutely. ..to ...monkey on his back" I'm not sure what you're issue is but figure I have right of reply without particular reservation. Weinstein's dubious casting couch professionalism was notorious well before 2008 and even featured in broadcast TV series comedy skits like 30 Rock; no doubt these were informal side-swipe allegations to him but should be determined public domain such that actors (actresses) or their agents were sufficiently aware of potential risk. The pornography industry has a whole genre, thousands, based on casting "starlets" willing to have sex to get a break into fame, so what elevates them? I don't choose to defend his (approximately 80 known) abuses of his B grade movie production power but have to pose the question how genuinely unaware the victims were or needed the money if cast. Victim blaming? In responding to the hypothetical situation of being a reporter required to write anything my position has been made clear here on ES previously. Write objectively, be selective in your alliances and true to yourself, not the paycheck.

ray | 06 July 2021  

Good Morning and thank you for your insights, Ray. The late Claire Bloom -a wonderful human being as well as a superb actress - was absolutely scathing in her comments on Roth. He was, I think, one f---ed up male with a shit attitude and approach to women. 'Portnoy's Complaint' isn't Graham Greene. It's disgusting literary wank. Roth sounds like a real turd.

Edward Fido | 07 July 2021  

Edward, acknowledged and agreed on Roth, the man. Roth's style for Portnoy is quite brash and can be confronting; you might give him credit for juxtaposing character flaws and strengths in both sexes. I suggest you keep in mind that Portnoy is a narration, not a perspective. I'll read Portnoy isn't Graham Greene as an opportunity to get you to think about Greene's own (apparent} maltreatment of objectifying women in say Quiet American; a Viet concubine with a contriving sister, a zealous but cold wife and trove of taxi dancers. Maybe Greene's law suit by Twentieth Century Fox for Night and Day—the book said that the child Shirley Temple presented "a dubious coquetry appealing to middle-aged men and clergymen" is indicative of his personal character. too - which returns us to the article - must we dissociate the work from the artist or dismiss both for their personal wrongs? Heller just gave readers party nurses and whores in Catch 22 and Vonnegut's female characters are just a veneer of something to perhaps return to after some all male campaign, not someone. Lucky I don't like reading...

ray | 07 July 2021  

Roy, the Book of Job, which I studied at Georgetown in its application to slave narratives justifying acceptance in the face of unspeakable human suffering, raises stark questions about innocent suffering. The introductory question is posed by Yahweh to all of us: 'Have you considered my servant Job?” (1:8; 2:3). The forty-two subsequent chapters open the story to an ongoing practice of reading and re-reading, and not just the magisterium, covering conservative and liberal interpretations of God’s love. Artists, novelists, playwrights, poets, musicians (religious and otherwise) have added their own distinctive readings. My course presenter was the dynamic Sri Lankan Oblate, Tissa Balasuriya. The Book focuses on the principal characters in the story: Job, God, Satan, Job’s wife, and Job’s friends, inviting an exploration of the biblical description of these characters, suggesting how subsequent readers have expanded or reduced the story, and applied the morals of the story to historical context. Chaucer, Voltaire, Melville, Goethe, Gounod, Whitman and Kafka read Job in an effort to understand why God afflicts Job 'for no reason' (2:3). The account is both compelling and endlessly complicated. To my thinking its a call to patience in the midst of exile, not retribution for unseen transgression.

Michael Furtado | 07 July 2021  

Ray: ‘ Given that you've apparently quoted my whole comment paragraph from "absolutely. ..to ...monkey on his back" I'm not sure what you're issue is….” I’ve taken on board your analysis. ‘they appear to be fractious’ You bet. I turn up here to draw religious implications. Some people find it divisive. Tough. ‘then lead off down various directions.’ That’s what I do when I’ve drawn the religious implications: see what their meaning is. Anyway, there was only one direction here: people complicate their own lives if they choose to live outside the moral norm. ‘Weinstein's dubious casting couch professionalism was notorious well before 2008….’ The point I was on was that a straight reportage on Weinstein would have contained examples of his behaviour, some of which resembled the Roth scene. Laura wouldn’t have complained about descriptions of actual events as they would have made the journalism stronger. Ask her these days what she thinks of the scene and if she accepts your thesis that the book was about someone paying the price of behaving badly, she would likely find the scene a necessary element of the story.

roy chen yee | 07 July 2021  

Tyger roy, leaning Right, who will know thy scorn tonight? what immortal phrase might please Escape thy fearful parentheses? It'd be nice for once to see my own words quoted back to me, cradled lovingly by your inverted commas treated with the equivalent enthusiasm you have for some favorite verse from Leviticus. What was the question containing the word rape that so angered Roth or why his anger; maybe it's immaterial here, now. Sarah only recalls the question was fair but (now I'm forced to dissect the following metaphor, closely) Roth silenced her; just as he’d silenced the female character in his novel. I didn't interpret Sarah's use of hyperbole to be actual oral rape of Laura. The use of the word just by Sarah is a little close to the edge, inferring literally actually the same - but this is edgy stuff by Sarah and creates a could hear a pin drop moment atmosphere. Perhaps roy, you're confusing an extract from a work of fiction with the quasi-journalistic report of an incident. Again, I'm not inclined to engage in the roy hypothetical; the duty of a reporter is to report the incident investigation is occurring, not try the accused on TV based on allegations. Court does that, read the transcript.

ray | 08 July 2021  

Michael Furtado: ‘To my thinking it’s a call to patience in the midst of exile….’ But, why was there an exile in the first place? The answer: Because God said so. Why did God say so? Because that’s what he wanted to say. But why did he want to say that? Because he did and that’s all there is until after we’re dead; then, we’ll find out. But isn’t God being like Grumpy Phil? Obviously not. But isn’t God acting in a ‘distinctly odd and retributive manner’? The same odd manner as the Virgin Mary who asked the Angel, ‘How’s that gonna happen? I’m too young’ without being struck dumb like Zechariah who asked the Angel, “How’s that gonna happen. We’re too old”? Apparently, Mary asked while believing (evidence from Elizabeth) while Zech asked while disbelieving although the text is equally terse in both instances. So, no, God mustn’t have been like Grumpy Phil and Pam doesn’t need John 6:68. And God (unlike Grumpy Phil) still doesn’t owe anyone an explanation because faith in the scrutable isn’t really Faith (while Phil has no business being a faith-monger and inscrutable). Follow that thar Magisterium, Michael!

roy chen yee | 09 July 2021  

Ray: Perhaps I should have rewritten ‘I’ve taken on board your analysis’ as ‘Good interpretations of Roth and Nobokov as showing the effects of toxic masculinity.’ Might have saved you the trouble of getting a hammer for a non-existent nail.

roy chen yee | 09 July 2021  

You paint an amusing, even entertaining - to the point of perverse - picture of God, Roy! Not even the Magisterium is so 'in extremis'. My first post on this site identified (and complimented!) you on being such an unrelenting Hobbesian. Nothing you've said in the interminable exchange we've subsequently had convinces me otherwise. When Pope Francis canonises Hobbes, I'll bow to your extreme position as an order-theorist. But not until then, please note; because the Magisterium doesn't support your view of God.

Michael Furtado | 10 July 2021  

roy, acknowledged. You've granted my wish! I'd be equally happy with "some Good interpretations..."; there's probably more for discovery in future as generations become more aware of various human failings and foibles. No trouble for me to get a hammer anytime...my forehead is always ready.

ray | 11 July 2021  

I respect your opinion, Ray, but I think Roth was a wanker and a turd to Claire. Anyone who mistreats women is subhuman IMHO.

Edward Fido | 14 July 2021  

You raise the question, Ray: 'Is the fiction the author'? Simple answer 'No'. Some fiction, written by fallible humans, as we all are, touches the nature of things. Such is Greene's short play 'The Potting Shed'. It is about a personal resurrection in life. I don't think Roth could do that.

Edward Fido | 14 July 2021  

Edward, you paraphrased my question incorrectly and of course answered your own version; Rhetoric 101. "do we necessarily link the irksome with the artistic and does it devalue the appreciation?" Some people can't dissociate what someone writes from what or who the author is. Like calling someone a racist or an activist because they write about racism but the reader allows their personal bias and feelings to judge the contents and condemns the writer. Novelists contrive complex characters and situations for entertainment; readers choose if they select Mills and Boon, penny-dreadfuls or other. Harper Lee's Mockingbird characters make it easy to discern the naive innocent from the grotesque guilty; Tom Roberts would be no more guilty of the assault if he was having an affair with the girl but Lee didn't go there, it wasn't the right time. Many books are purely narratives written as if through the eyes of the flawed or inexperienced character. It's of little interest to me what your opinion of the writer is; you'll make your own conclusions and no doubt voice them, too.

ray | 19 July 2021  

Now, now, Ray; our Christian calling is surely also to be gentle and not just eloquently critical.

Michael Furtado | 20 July 2021  

Firstly, a terrific article that grapples with something that is entirely subjective. Human beings make exceptions based on our own set of morals and principles. As for the commentary on the twitter mob, Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said "We are now angels jostling to out-angel one another". The irony (of course) is the allegations against her for transphobic comments. Alas, the point is, the work of a writer as great is it may be, should never elevate them into God-like status—they are after all, only human.

Najma Sambul | 20 July 2021  

Edward Fido: “Such is Greene's short play 'The Potting Shed'.” I think the fiction might have been the author in that case, given that Greene, a self-described Catholic agnostic, was poking a stick at an atheist who wouldn’t believe the eyes of a gardener and one of his sons, and a thirty year old bargain that remained a secret until another truth was revealed. A short play, readable in about two hours (last Friday), and available to all and sundry by download from Googling ‘isisinvokes the potting shed.’ Isisinvokes dot com seems to be run by theosophists, ‘isis’ being the Egyptian deity and not the jihadists.

roy chen yee | 20 July 2021  

typo-check: but not at a thirty year old

roy chen yee | 20 July 2021  

Ok, this is for Edward coz he admires Greene and for Michael coz he chastised me: “I doubt if ever one ceases to love, but one can cease to be in love as easily as one can outgrow an author one admired as a boy.” ? Graham Greene, Doctor Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party. I think that quote is pertinent to the article thread and various comments. My caution to readers of books is to observe each paragraph indent in a work of fiction to remind themselves it's just a story; if you felt such empathy for a character it was necessary to reproach the writer for the contrived predicament it says a lot about the development and the reader. In Star Wars the Empire death star destroyed a whole planet of people with a death ray in the name of entertainment for kids... nobody even blinked. It's easy to dismiss the outlandish characters of science fiction as fantasy because there's a Wookie or Yoda but somehow it's also possible to be so absorbed in an equally fictional novel you're moved. For all his righteousness, Atticus Finch was an accomplice to conceal a murder; watch for that indent.

ray | 21 July 2021  

A very good point and beautifully - crisply! - expressed. Where some of us, I imagine, might take issue, Ray, is that all Greene's heroes - The Whisky Priest, for example - are flawed. And might that also not apply to Atticus Finch? THAT humanity and vulnerability, surely, is what makes heroes out of them; no? And - dare I say it? - raises that possibility even for us (which is arguably why Greene & Harper Lee wrote and also part of the reason for our universal quest when we read....and write)?

Michael Furtado | 22 July 2021  

Micheal, in many cases communication is to persuade readers to think in a way the writer evaluates is morally or ideologically preferred. Writers have power (deliberate or unintentional) to guide readers with techniques that can be subtle enough to get under the radar; it can be like the magicians card force 'pick a card, any card..." but the deck is stacked, the choice is limited and the replacement to the deck is directed. A good writer can put their preferred notion in a reader's mind; metaphor, rhetoric, distraction, pleading...the weaker the mind the less the awareness, perhaps this could be considered coercion rather than persuasion? Novels and fiction can be fun but allow the writer license to create characters and scenarios that push the boundaries of themes to intertwine the climax with a morality judgement; mixing ethos and pathos is a fish milkshake. Atticus implored the jury to "do your duty" but later failed himself in his implicit respect for law. You forgive him in being guided to a conclusion that even heroes can be flawed but that is their humanity. Is that the necessary take away? To me it's misguided to allow fiction to serve to influence moral judgement, particularly that the writer spent a few hours inside your head in a very one-sided, crafted dialogue.

ray | 23 July 2021  

Beautifully cautioned and explained, Ray. But isn't that the point about all writing - even the Magisterium that provides the gold standard for some here about what constitutes the truth? And, if so, why do we then have catechesis, theology, the letters of St Paul (a flawed being but also a saint), the Prophets, the Psalmists and the rest of them, including the Qur'an and the Bhagavad Gita, if they don't also require exegists, some of them employing fiction and story to unleash the Word? Aye; THAT's the rub: would we rather shut our minds than risk questioning everything, thereby believing in nothing?

Michael Furtado | 23 July 2021  

Michael, I chose my words carefully "it is misguided to allow fiction to serve to influence moral judgment." It might be fun to push my axiomatic barrow through a minefield of religious texts but there's a safe route. Stories with names are witness (not all first person) accounts and despite needing to be taken with a pillar of salt sometimes, not necessarily wholly fiction; unnamed person stories may be real events, we can't know; mostly the examples are an "uncharacterised person" in a situation. Some add profiling, (e.g.: Samaritan, Roman) perhaps for purpose to test a theorum in specific but rarely do the texts try to draw the reader to value the person beyond what is necessary to ascertain the theme. Fiction doesn't necessarily have to be contrived characters nor does "non-fiction" necessitate a factual, historic event. A book of How to play golf or a medical text isn't fiction but it didn't happen. If it is necessary to dream up a bunch of developing, extended characters and put them in a contrived ant farm to experience their feelings, fears or failings to arrive at moral judgements the necessity of service fails; if there's no real event to consider there's no necessity for moral scrutiny.

ray | 24 July 2021  

Ray, I think you present a very good case for moral restraint on the part of fiction writers. There is another view which you may not have considered. Both a brother of mine and I are writers: one of us of fiction (or at least of literary criticism, which of itself is an inexact field) and the other a mathematical philosopher and ethicist. In fact, our mother, an accomplished woman in her own right, once remarked: 'One of my sons writes books I can read but can't understand; and the other writes books I can understand but can't read.' In sum, what she meant was that neither of us wrote what she really would have wanted. So, from quite early on both of us were taught, at our Jesuit college, to write as if those who inhibited us and prevented our stating our truth, whether 'fictitious' or not, were dead, as a means of containing their hidden influence. Of course, this provides no guarantees of not unduly influencing others, but 'bracketing' them off, as the poet, Peter Levi, advised, offers a bleak chance at least of 'epoche' or placing oneself in another's shoes, whether one actually wears them or not.

Michael Furtado | 25 July 2021  

Michael, I think you missed my point. My axiom isn't to control writers or condemn fiction. I do wish some writers would not deliberately coerce readers to generally moralize a particular way on a specific, contrived hypothetical but it's unlikely that will happen. There are also those who inadvertantly encourage moral value judgments from the reader but don't really know what the case is themselves. Writers will always be limited by their own experiences and prejudices which can misguide the outcome. Mostly, people fail to be objective in communication; we want others to think and be like us; "see it my way..." but in the case of fiction there's really nothing to see. I'm sure you'll have two very different opinions sitting adjacent a teenager on a train reading either Gandhi's Satya ke Prayog or Mein Kampf. So while you're pondering someone else's shoes to try on perhaps you need to decide if you like their sandals or jack boots first. By all means, read and write anything but be wary of persuasive writing techniques (just like one I used here: juxtaposition of extremes) for reframing ethics and postulates of morals. Beware the indent; it can warn of indenture to a mirage.

ray | 26 July 2021  

So, to corollarise, Ray: life has no purpose, for fear that we might unduly moralise? A frightening prospect indeed for a race that has for so long relied upon its own gods for explanation and consolation. Here's Catherine Pepinster of The Tablet rebuking sceptical Dawks: 'Intellectual monsters like Hategod Dawkie spread their desparing gospel of nihilism, pointlessness, vacuity and emptiness of life..and ..floccinaucinihilipilification'. (i.e. 'estimating as worthless'). Behind the excess of the passionate and mouth-frothing, is there also the smell of fear? Believe in what I believe? Believe in God and purpose and the promise of eternal life because the alternative is effing terrifying. Are we really children destined forever to be walking fearfully through the Austrian forest at night? But instead of nice Herr Witters urging us to think only of God, there would be beastly Old Dawks the science-master objectivist, cane in hand, scaring us with tales of Bears, Death and divils, while ordering us to take our minds off things by admiring the stars. Even there poets like Brian Swimme seem to have stolen Dawkie's britches by spiritualising the cosmos. Is there no end to the cunning of the persuaders? Should we drift instead in frozen silence?

Michael Furtado | 01 August 2021  

Michael, it'd be unwise to assume a corollary on the basis of an unproved axiom. There's nothing nihilistic about disbelief in a work of fiction; the idea and art may exist in various mental states but the reality is as two dimensional as the paper it's presented on; maybe not meaningless but questionable if meritorious. Consider Munch's painting the Scream and the similar emotions evoked by the image of Kim Phuc (the napalm girl); the painting has been mocked and various comedic characterizations whereas I doubt the photograph will ever receive anything less than sobering thought; the real deal. I'm disinterested in the Pepinster attack; argumentum ad personam et ad hominem, ergo decedo. I'm wary of both claims and allegations of nihilism; most jump out of the way of an oncoming bus. I think the world has an elegant sufficiency of real evil and immoral persons to concern or confuse ourselves already (sic) without the need to invent more imaginary nasties to test if ethics theory is rigorous enough and wax morality on a just a fairy tale.

ray | 04 August 2021  

Methinks Ray, you tripped over your own logic berating me for always confuting the author with his/her subject. I didn't. That was an assumption you made. Perhaps, like Roy, you normally don't have anyone to bounce ideas off and come to ES discussions with too much baggage on board. When Adolf Hitler wrote Mein Kampf he was both a racist and giving his own racist theory an airing. I think who the writer is shapes what he/she writes. Shakespeare was great and his greatness shone through in his writing. He was an enormously prolific and multi-talented genius. He was also a white Englishman and thus ripe for being cancelled by the Woke Generation. Leaving that aside, Your (self-appointed) Honour, may I draw your attention to Portnoy's Complaint, which we should consider in this discussion (or is it a monolgue you have taken over, as often happens in ES). Roth discussed the furtive joys of masturbation there. He was Jewish. Their angst is as bad as Catholic Guilt. 'The Potting Shed' is a (sadly infrequently produced) play, which you have obviously neither seen nor read but choose to cast your 'pearls of wisdom' to us on. That's about the score. Sad that.

Edward Fido | 05 August 2021  
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Edward, you've made a few generalizations and awkward assumptions that I don't need to address, refute or defend; I'd have considered my personal circumstances or what I read were immaterial to posting comments on ES. You can choose not to read them. I don't profess thinking logically; logical sounds good but has numerous limitations for those constrained by that thought process but you may never know that, huh? I enjoy haunting various forums with amateur and semi-professional writers contributions; mostly my interest is how effectively they write rather than what topic; where I choose I might make constructive awareness critiques but some are a lost cause. I'm compiling content about persuasive techniques and it's fun to engage in some arguments to see how others communicate; interestingly, and disproving your theory, my comments may be entirely hypocritical...but it does bring us both to an engaging contretemps: if (as you think) who the writer is shapes what he/she writes then why does my writing "pearls" on ES in your assumed absence of me having read "Potting shed" constitute a sadness? If logic works in computing your score, sadness is a state of the noun sorrow, the adjective is sorry...perhaps you can say it.

ray | 06 August 2021  

Its welcoming, as well as sobering, that you clarify, Ray. Sure; I agree with you that Kim Phuc is the real thing and therefore stands as an incontestible witness to the wickedness of 'napalming the intransigent', which, if I may note, you carefully avoid doing. I congratulate you therefore about persevering with me and coming to a point of appreciation with me that opinion-writers in these columns, while sometimes given to parsing their views with a form of rhetoric that you expose as flamboyant, share the same concerns about the need to present issues of injustice as accurately as you undoubtedly - as well as eloquently - also now demonstrate. Stay well, Ray, as well as continuingly conversational and explicatory.

Michael Furtado | 06 August 2021  

Intermission..Act 3 (take 38). Ya see Edward, it all comes down to Lazarus and doing an old theme to death...but it just won't die. I've read Potting shed; for your edification it's the second book in which Greene uses a pact with God to resurrect a dead person; End of the Affair (1951) which preceded Sheds 'r Us but Greene flogged it just one more time. Dis-interestingly, (to me) the play has alternate endings for UK and US audiences; I won't spoil it and tell you the priest is James' real father or about the light-sabre fight where he loses his arm; oops, that's Star Wars. Greene writes utter nonsense; I won't waste my time to explore the implausible morality or virtues of some fictional psycho-drama where a priest makes a deal, witnesses a miracle but then we're supposed to contemplate the conundrum that he must reject God despite being gifted by him. At least Twain has some fun with Lazarus themes, writing of lawyers arguing over the will and his estate after being pronounced dead, but not. Don't forget the S word...or maybe just a CTC? If you're well read in Greene you'll know what that is...[Curtain]

ray | 07 August 2021  

Sure, Ray; on the basis that fiction carries no rights with it to moral pronouncement, we'd better wipe out the Bible, the factuality of which is scant indeed, as a major source of moral teaching. Back to Mr Gradgrind?

Michael Furtado | 07 August 2021  
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Michael, gimme a break. You've already been down the Bible track to try to railroad the discussion and I think I have already responded adequately. I don't dismiss the Bible as fiction nor accept the "factuality" is scant. Thankfully you've almost untangled your own snare yourself by mentioning Stendhal so you ought know better; what may not be exactly what happened in Biblical events was recorded to the best of their understanding with what they then interpreted was the necessary details. They crammed a couple of thousand years of Hebrew and Christian history onto papyrus parchment with sticks, some of it survived these few millenia is now Testament. If lay persons or theologians choose to further discuss the possibility, plausibility or veracity it's fine with me. Hopefully some future generations won't find a copy of Dr Seuz's Cat in the Hat and think it's a historical document which explains the prevalence of cat memes of the 21st century.

ray | 11 August 2021  

‘Bible, the factuality of which is scant indeed’: As with the three hallucinations in the desert? I wonder what the guarantee of inspiration by the Holy Spirit is supposed to be doing there.

roy chen yee | 14 August 2021  

PS. Oh, I forgot, Raymond. Gradgrind was a fictitious creation of Dickens. That wipes out all of Dickens as well. Oh, I further forgot: Dickens was a sot in his personal life, so he deserves to be wiped out as well. Now that you've driven this conversation into a no-escape cul-de-sac of your clever creation, there's no hope even for Greene's personally-flawed heroes - not because they are personally-flawed but because he used his writerly skills to illustrate the moral complexities that engulf us. Would that those memorable photos of Kim Phuc and the Jewish kid with his hands up, being arrested by a Nazi soldier, gun in hand in the Warsaw Ghetto, were enough to prick the fastidious conscience. You must be right, though. When I presented a photo of Oscar Romero being gunned down while saying Mass as a depiction of the Crucifixion, I was vilified for supplanting the sacred image of Christ with that of a political hero or ne'er-do-well, depending on one's politics. There's no escape from the fundamentalists, is there, regardless of how clever or stupid they are. In your view we're doomed to do nothing because what confronts us isn't supported by hard evidence.

Michael Furtado | 07 August 2021  

Michael, my encouragement to readers is to be aware of persuasive techniques used by writers to get their point across, usually to arrive at "the moral to the story". In most works of fiction there's an absence of both evidence or extenuating circumstances to arrive at a fair judgement; the reader is craftily directed to the dead end; my axiom is simply the NO THROUGH ROAD sign that warns of what's happening. You've used the writer's technique of Extension in your comment to demonstrate the flaw; I don't take offence to that, sometimes it is just how people process concepts and then accept or reject according to their own values. It's not my purpose to stop people reading or writing fiction, nor do I necessarily want others to agree with me but I'll try to wrap it up like this: I'd hate to be convicted by a jury that had a causal opinion of precedent based on a novel they'd read, however well illustrated and embellished. Enjoy your reading journeys, Mind the step.

ray | 08 August 2021  

The thing about fiction, Ray, is that memory is an unreliable source and vulnerable to contest. From my diary I note that I hitch-hiked into Florence in August 1976 'overcome with fatigue, wet, jolted & sleeping with sheep in a cramped lorry, only to be turned away from the Duomo because of my deshabille (i.e. shorts)'. I've never been to Florence again and yet I know I wouldn't have left without seeing Brunelleschi's Dome. Ditto with Venice: my diary tells me that I cadged a lift off a fishing-boat from Chioggia that brought me into Venice via the lagoon because I was skint, but I remember arriving instead at the station in Venezia Mestre. Where does that leave the search for truth or whatever it is that we discuss? Stendhal Syndrome (named in 1979) isn't about exaggeration, confabulation and false-memory but a story about narrative and memory. Narrative: the truth of an account is the truth of its final form, not that of its initial version. Memory: I was sincere, whether 'instantly-jotting' or 'later-constructing'. Time brings not just narrative variation but emotional increase. Fatigue and shorts, distracting from God's glory, triumph over puritanical onlookers and emphasise the power of art.

Michael Furtado | 10 August 2021  
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’Where does that leave the search for truth or whatever it is that we discuss?’ With the answer that that is why Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit and, yes, Venezia, those weren’t hallucinations in the desert? ‘Stendhal Syndrome (named in 1979) isn't about exaggeration, confabulation and false-memory but a story about narrative and memory’: Or maybe it’s a story of why a human can’t see God without some special arrangement because to do so would shut down its nervous system?

roy chen yee | 12 August 2021  

Welcome to Ray's place, Roy! Fiction is a process combining total freedom and utter control, which balances both observation and imagination. Both use lies to tell the truth and truth to tell lies. Good writers insist on telling stories in all their contrariness, contradiction and irresolvability; which is tell the 'one true story': the one that smelts, refines and resolves all quandaries. Ask any scripture scholar about this. Thus the Gospel Writers are both back-row cynic as well as lyric poet, drawing, post-Wittgenstein, to speak only of that, regardless of fact or fiction, which we truly know! A child dives headlong into a leaky pouffe and through its broken seams squirt the torn-up love letters of their parents. THAT is what the Gospels are about! But s/he will never be able to piece together forever the absolute wonder and mystery of their love. So also with the Gospels! Now approaching old age, their meaning awaits to be further renewed: the torn-up clues and wonder of piecing together a story of which we can only know fragments waiting to be rediscovered and added to by those coming after us. Don't cheapen this for us, Roy! Don't put a stop to Revelation!

Michael Furtado | 16 August 2021  

Exodus 33:20 is either fact or fiction. Given the desire of modernists to fictionalise as much of Scripture as possible (as fiction written by pre-modern quasi-deplorables) so that it can become a palimpsest for desired superior interpretations, the mix of awe and something like a keno- or thalasso- fear of being overwhelmed by expanse in the Stendhal may provide a bit of science to support the factual plausibility of this text. Scripture always has practical purposes, one of which is to answer the simple question (in a child’s catechism, say) of why God is invisible. As to why the peculiarity that is the Stendhal Syndrome exists when there doesn’t appear to be any evolutionary need for it and, in its aesthetics, it can hardly be said to be a fall from perfection, perhaps it is a concession to the fact that although Christ has ascended, Thomas is still on the planet.

roy chen yee | 23 August 2021  

Yes; that true, Roy! As is also His side-kick, the Paraclete, while not forgetting the fact that Thomas - quintessential to the narrative - represents us lowly all, the great unwashed, in our continued search for a Christ as yet not completely and absolutely revealed. That's the enigma; isn't it, Roy?

Michael Furtado | 26 August 2021  

‘That's the enigma….’ Not quite. Thomas was rebuked for not believing what his leader, the head of the college of apostles (and an eyewitness to boot), told him. ‘Thomas - quintessential to the narrative - represents us lowly all, the great unwashed, in our continued search for a Christ as yet not completely and absolutely revealed.’ Not at all. He only represents our obstinacy, not our faith. The obstinacy was rebuked by ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ Peter is no longer here but there is a Magisterium guiding his Barque.

roy chen yee | 27 August 2021  

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