Do Artists Owe Critics? Philip Roth, Lena Dunham, and Adelle Waldman’s Wrestling With “-Isms”


In the year 2014, being a Great Writer has to be pretty cushy. Your name is constantly bandied about when the Swedes decide to convene for the Nobel Prize, you don’t need to have a presence on Twitter in order to cultivate fans because you are essentially too cool/established/whatever for it, you could be on the cover of Time just because, and your obituary, whenever that comes, will likely garner a lot of words and space in the New York Times.

The other thing about being a Great Writer in 2014 is that when critics throw around their “-isms,” as they do and they will (but they’re also called tropes and stereotypes these days), you don’t have to engage with it. Not one whit. Take Philip Roth, for example. He may be retired from writing, but he’s still giving interviews, and in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, he talked with Daniel Sandstrom, the cultural editor at Svenska Dagbladet about the usual Rothian topics: the role of the novelist in today’s society, Czechoslovakia, whether American popular culture has a hold on the world, and misogyny, as it applies to his work.

In this case, Roth’s answer is standard. “It is my comic fate to be the writer these traducers have decided I am not,” he starts, elaborating with, “The imposition of a cause’s idea of reality on the writer’s idea of reality can only mistakenly be called ‘reading.’ And in the case at hand, it is not necessarily a harmless amusement. In some quarters, ‘misogynist’ is not a word used almost as laxly as was ‘Communist’ by the McCarthyite right in the 1950s — and for very like the same purpose.”

Roth is making a pretty big jump there — misogyny is a legitimate point of view regarding his work, and he’s completely dismissive of the criticism, refusing to engage in it and comparing it to McCarthyism. It’s simply tone deaf.

But this has, to a degree, been par for the course with Great Writers, from Jonathan Franzen being needled about Franzenfreude to Claire Messud’s sharp reply on “unlikable characters” and the insipid dialogue that bloomed from that meme. And it’s understandable why it’s a lose-lose situation for a writer to engage with criticisms, particularly ones who are mucking about in this current 24-hour news cycle of easy punditry. Their answers can get misconstrued, and the criticism, in the first place, is often presented in a Fox News gotcha-style “ism,” as in “your book, your writing, your art didn’t do X, so it is bad, and you are probably not a very nice person.”

New writers don’t quite have the luxury of complete dismissal. Adelle Waldman, whose book The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P received a lot of buzz, particularly for the title character’s perceived misogyny, answered a question about Nate’s misogyny in the New York Times with a thoughtful reply: “I think the word ‘misogynistic’ isn’t quite right for what Nate is. I think he is an earnestly liberal, politically correct guy who genuinely believes in the stated aims of feminism, at least as far as equality goes, but I think he also harbors a good deal of reflexive sexism, some of which he is unaware of and some of which he acknowledges to himself but instinctively refrains from revealing to others.”

No mention of McCarthyism there, and it’s a graceful dive into the book’s issues. Perhaps something can be gained from responding to critics and having a dialogue about art? Look at the case of Lena Dunham, the premiere of Girls on HBO, and the charges of racism. Critics called out the show’s premiere for its whitewashed vision of young women trying to make it in New York City. Dunham was tasked, as the tweeting and public figure behind Girls, to explain how that came to be and what she was going to do about it. In an interview with NPR, she said, “As much as I can say it was an accident, it was only later as the criticism came out, I thought ‘I heard this and I want to respond to it.’”

Granted, these are very different cases: Roth is a Great Writer who just retired. He doesn’t need to engage with his critics. His legacy and his work is secure. Whereas Dunham is young, and she was completely unknown at the time, and she had to engage with this chorus, as it was threatening the debut of her show, which she has been able to correct in nearly real-time.

Girls has responded to the accusations of racism in incremental steps. Season 2 featured its first black character: Donald Glover as the boyfriend of the week, a black Republican named Sandy; the relationship ended in an argument about race and racism. Season 3 featured, so far, Orange Is the New Black’s Danielle Brooks and The Daily Show’s Jessica Williams as women at rehab and the office, respectively. And while they’ve mostly been supporting characters, it’s been a start and a response. The background characters, too, have become more and more diverse by the minute. Dunham has made a well-intentioned course correction — whether it serves her show for the better can be argued, as a lot of these characters have been clumsily shoehorned in the show. Girls remains, stubbornly, at its core, about a young woman’s myopia evolving into something different.

But the case of Dunham, Girls, and racism are just one instant of responding to critics. There’s been something in the air as of late. People are more aware of their blind spots, trying to correct where their work has been one-sided. There’s the New York Times Book Review, becoming broader and more generous by the minute, answering Jennifer Weiner’s frustrations with its focus on young male authors. And in the wake of Girls, lots of other artists are writing about their lives and their experiences, with a background very different from Dunham. So even if criticism can be reductionist, concerned with “-isms” and occasionally nonsensical interpretations of one’s work — Roth is not wrong, there! — there can be something to engaging with people’s frustrations, figuring out how it can make your art better. Maybe it’s what’s going to happen in the new world, where artists have to tweet and figure out how to engage with the world, in order to survive.

I’m not sure whether it’s a world that Philip Roth would like very much. Or if it’s a world he even needs to engage in. After all, “the struggle with writing” is over for him. But for young artists like Waldman and Dunham, engaging with the world as it is, having to listen to people’s criticisms and interpretations, is a necessary part of being an artist in 2014. It may make their work better in the long run.