To the Editor:
. . . I take rather strong exception to Peter Shaw’s “Portnoy and His Creator” [May]. Whatever the final merits of Portnoy’s Complaint (and I think they are considerable), it seems to me that a reviewer should deal with Mr. Roth’s novel in other than the ad hominem (re Roth) and reductionist (re Roth’s supposed attitude toward Jews) manner that Mr. Shaw does. Though reviews of the “Roth is fouling his own nest” variety might have been interesting the first time around (in the case of Goodbye, Columbus) . . . they are, finally, fruitless, wrong-headed, and unenlightening.
Consider examples in our recent cultural life. When Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was first published it was assailed by certain black radicals as a betrayal of the Negro. Or to take another example: at one time Faulkner’s work was consistently damned by professional Southerners as defamatory toward the South. This is not to mention the attacks both Hannah Arendt and I. F. Stone have incurred in recent years because in their writings they have dared to question some of the received truths about the Jewish people and Israel. Mr. Shaw, it seems to me, has fallen victim to this same type of one-dimensional criticism, in which, because the artist or writer is of a certain religious, racial, or regional group, he dare not hint at less than perfection among that group. . . .
In Mr. Shaw’s review I found no mention of the fact that Roth had unfairly stereotyped all young women from West Virginia’s mountain people as nymphomaniacs, lacking the most elemental grasp of culture. Wasn’t Roth also rather snide toward Midwestern corn-fed college girls? One sees how really silly the thrust of Mr. Shaw’s reviewing technique is. If one is to read the book as an example of Roth’s misanthropy, then Roth must be brought to the bar for demamation of WASPS as well as Jews. . . .
Mr. Shaw fails totally to come to grips with the novel as anything other than a diatribe against Jews. The perfect fate for his review would be its inclusion in a book entitled Ten Angry Critics Reply to Philip Roth.
To the Editor:
Peter Shaw chose to review Portnoy’s Complaint in terms of an article written by Philip Roth six years ago in answer to the charges of self-hatred which greeted Goodbye, Columbus. In this article Roth claimed that actually he was doing the Jews a service by presenting them in an unattractive light because “the solution is not to convince people to like the Jews so as not to want to kill them; it is to let them know they cannot kill them even if they despise them.” Shaw claims that Portnoy’s Complaint cannot be defended on such a basis. He is right. But what has that to do with the book? . . . No one actually believes that Roth wrote the novel as a favor to Jews. . . . Roth obviously doesn’t care whether the book is good for the Jews or not. . . .
Somerville, New Jersey