Poking the giant: how radio reported the death of Philip Roth

Perhaps the parting of a great contributor to civilisation would not be sidelined by a 1970s argument that claimed he only ever talked about his dick, adultery and seduction.

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Philip Roth died, and this is what they said. “The funniest guy you ever met in your life” – his biographer Blake Bailey on BBC Radio 4’s Today – “and also the most serious.”

DJ Taylor: (“opening up new areas of experience”); Hermione Lee (“not unsparing as a human being”); interviewer Erica Wagner (“he grilled me”) and David Baddiel (“properly funny”).

Then, the question we all knew was coming: “He did face accusations of misogyny…” started Martha Kearney – one sensed reluctantly, as though this were a discussion on climate change and (being the BBC) some space at least had to be given to one whacko fringe opinion. Sarah Churchwell nodded. “There are times as a woman when I find the work a little bit rebarbative but for the most part that’s not what he was about.”

Not bad. Perhaps the death of a truly great contributor to civilisation would not be sidelined by a 1970s argument that claimed he only ever talked about his dick, adultery and seduction where now we can see that Roth was going through the gears across his novels, getting to the bit where his male characters were sexually defunct and leaving a trail of destruction. “I’ll get there,” he was saying. Wait. My oeuvre is coherent.

On Radio 4’s World at One, Sarah Montague asked the critic Jonathan McAloon if Roth was “an overrated, narcissistic, self-obsessed male” (you could hear she was smiling, as though allowing a game to take place). McAloon called Sabbath’s Theater “an incredibly misogynistic dirty book…”  How ill-fitted contemporary media is to the rare moment of complete celebration! Only David Bowie’s death bucked that sour trend. But he added, “… which is nonetheless excellent.” Front Row used lots of Mark Lawson’s entertaining 2007 interview, and we heard good stories about Roth out to supper in Notting Hill, unprepared to soften his devil-in-him garrulousness for the female diners. When John Wilson asked Ian McEwan if he had any complaints about Roth and women, McEwan simply said, “No.” You don’t hear a simple “No” often on Radio 4. The coverage was an 8ish out of ten. And “toxic masculinity” didn’t get used once (the things Roth could do with that phrase! The 300-page riffs!).

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 01 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, God isn’t dead