T: The New York Times Style Magazine just sent us a sneak preview of their newest cover model: Philip Roth. He’s in handsome company, perhaps dangerously so. The last guy on the cover was Channing Tatum.
But if Roth has that stressed, I-can’t-bear-to-look thing going on—anxiety chic—it’s not because he’s out of his depth in the modeling game. It’s because he’s been rereading his own work, always a dicey proposition. Specifically, he’s been rereading Portnoy’s Complaint, to which his reputation remains staked, many decades and nearly two dozen novels later. Roth doesn’t have a problem with that, but he does have a problem with those who have cast the book as gratuitous or indecorous:
I portrayed a man who is the repository of every unacceptable thought, a 33-year-old man possessed by dangerous sensations, nasty opinions, savage grievances, sinister feelings and, of course, one stalked by the implacable presence of lust. In short, I wrote about the quotient of the unsocialized that is rooted in almost everyone … One writes a repellent book (and Portnoy’s Complaint was taken by many to be solely that) not to be repellent but to represent the repellent, to air the repellent, to expose it, to reveal how it looks and what it is. Chekhov wisely advised that the writer’s task lies not in solving problems but in properly presenting the problem.
With his usual candor, Roth meditates on Alexander Portnoy’s standing today, in these “erotically unfettered” times. His essay is one in a series wherein authors reread their own work; there’s also Lydia Davis on Break It Down, Robert Caro on The Power Broker, George Saunders on CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Marilynne Robinson on Housekeeping, Jennifer Egan on A Visit From the Goon Squad, and Junot Díaz on The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. You can read all of them here.
Next month, these writers and others are auctioning annotated first editions of their books to benefit PEN American Center. The auction, “First Editions, Second Thoughts,” takes place December 2 at Christie’s New York; previews begin November 17.