In Memory of Two Great But Flawed Writers

by Michael Dorf

On this Memorial Day, in addition to honoring the men and women who died serving their country in the armed forces, I want to take a brief moment to remember and reflect on the legacy of two great American writers who died nearly simultaneously: Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth.

Received wisdom says write what you know. Roth followed this advice in the conventional way. His early work--the stories in Goodbye Columbus and the psychoanalytic introspection in Portnoy's Complaint--painted pictures of a very thin slice of life. Roth's mid-career novels continued the focus on Roth--whether through his alter-ego in the Zuckerberg novels or, playfully, in the "fictional" character of Philip Roth in The Counterlife. When Roth returned to his roots late in life, he described the Newark and Weehawken of his youth, down to the neighborhood level. Even the most kaleidoscopic of Roth's later novels were told from his own particular perspective. American Pastoral  (arguably Roth's best novel) is not a story of 60s radicalism broadly but of its intersection with the American Jewish experience. The Plot Against America is a book about an alternative reality in which a Nazi-sympathizing Charles Lindbergh gains the presidency, but it is mostly about how that reality affects a working-class Jewish family in New Jersey.

Wolfe also took the received wisdom to heart, but in an entirely different way. To write about subjects well beyond his own experience--NASA in The Right Stuff, 1980s Wall Street in Bonfire of the Vanities, 1990s Atlanta in A Man in Full, turn-of-the-21st-century college life in I Am Charlotte Simmons--Wolfe notoriously did prodigious research, spending years and years interviewing and living among those whose experiences he would then fictionalize.

The result in both cases was an arresting verisimilitude. To read either a Roth or a Wolfe novel is to encounter characters who should be unfamiliar--a particular reader may have no direct experience with polio's impact on Newark during the 1940s or astronauts--but in the hands of Roth and Wolfe respectively, she comes to feel that she is encountering real characters.

Except when the characters are caricatures or stereotypes, as the women in Roth's books and the non-white characters in Wolfe's books far too often were. Writing in the New York Times, Dara Horn draws the harsh but ultimately fair conclusion that Roth's caricatures of Jewish women from New Jersey "reveal a lack of not only empathy, but curiosity." More broadly, Horn writes darkly: "What endures, sadly, is Roth’s lack of imagination, the unempathetic and incurious caricaturing of others that he turned into a virtue—and which now defines much of American public life."

Wolfe also bears some responsibility for such caricaturing, especially of racial minorities. In Bonfire, we are told that African American students who are not flunking out of school count as "honor students." We also meet Rev. Reginald Bacon, who bears a striking resemblance to the actual Rev. Al Sharpton. One might say in Wolfe's defense that Al Sharpton is a real person, but this hardly suffices. Pol Pot was a real person but that surely would not excuse portraying all Cambodians as Pol Pot. When Wolfe actually does portray Americans of southeast Asian descent, in A Man in Full, they are seen almost entirely through the eyes of a white character and mostly as unknown and unknowable objects. "Many shops had no English at all in their signs. Instead, ideographs such as Conrad had never laid eyes before . . . . Thai? Cambodian? Laotian? Korean? Vietnamese? A big sign on a metal stanchion said ASIAN SQUARE. The cars pulling in--all driven by black-haired people--Asians."

Despite his years of research, Wolfe seemed ultimately as incurious as Roth about a great many people with whom he could not really identify; at most he and his characters could only encounter them as others or props.

If I may presume to update the standard advice to writers, I would say this: By all means, write what you know, but get to know a lot more than you do. That means hearing people not just so that you can caricature their accents but so that you have some sense of what it might be like to see the world through their eyes.