I love it when great writers get mad at each other. The modernists were a notably prickly lot that didn’t fit well together (I can hardly imagine a conversation that D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf would have). By contrast, our own era features major novelists who seem quite chummy. People have been known to mix up the “Jonathans,” meaning Franzen, Lethem, Ames, Safran Foer, et al. Mainly writers today all seem to attend the same convivial conferences and NPR radio shows, and nobody seems in dire conflict with another. Nobody much likes Rick Moody, from what I can tell, but other than that the big writers seem to get along.
The heavyweights of the postwar era were a contentious bunch. Norman Mailer had feuds running with William Styron, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal (whom he punched on one memorable occasion), and so on. Philip Roth and John Updike were not notable enemies, but seeing as how they were basically vying for the title of “Greatest Super-Prolific Major Post-War American Author,” it’s not super surprising that they duked it out on a couple of occasions.
In 1996 Roth’s reputation took a hit when his ex-wife, the English actress Claire Bloom, published a memoir of their tempestuous five-year-long marriage (and much longer relationship) called Leaving a Doll’s House. Needless to say, Roth doesn’t come off looking too good in the book. Three years later, Roth was still bristling at the apparent presumption of guilt John Updike had communicated in an essay about literary biography in The New York Review of Books.
Roth wrote in to complain, resulting in one of those exquisite disputes that happen often in the pages of The New York Review of Books. Letters going each way, eye squarely on the reader, outraged rhetorical high dudgeon in abundance…. But this one would be short and sweet. Roth offered to rewrite a key sentence—on the Internet, you could distill part of his lengthy, indeed overlong missive as the common Internet acronym, the breezy and condescending “FTFY”: “Fixed that for you!” Updike didn’t take the bait, deciding that his original sentence was good enough, thank you very much.
Check it out (emphasis added):
To the Editors:
In your February 4, 1999, issue, John Updike, commenting on Claire Bloom’s 1996 memoir Leaving the Doll’s House, writes: “Claire Bloom, as the wronged ex-wife of Philip Roth, shows him to have been, as their marriage rapidly unraveled, neurasthenic to the point of hospitalization, adulterous, callously selfish, and financially vindictive.” Allow me to imagine a slight revision of this sentence: “Claire Bloom, presenting herself as the wronged ex-wife of Philip Roth, alleges him to have been neurasthenic to the point of hospitalization, adulterous, callously selfish, and financially vindictive.” Written thus, the sentence would have had the neutral tone that Mr. Updike is careful to maintain elsewhere in this essay on literary biography when he is addressing Paul Theroux’s characterization of V.S. Naipaul and Joyce Maynard’s characterization of J.D. Salinger. Would that he had maintained that neutral tone in my case as well.
Over the past three years I have become accustomed to finding Miss Bloom’s characterization of me taken at face value. One Sara Nelson, reviewing my novel American Pastoral, digressed long enough to write: “In her memoir, Leaving the Doll’s House, Roth’s ex, Claire Bloom, outed the author as a verbally abusive neurotic, a womanizer, a venal nutcase. Do we believe her? Pretty much:Roth is, after all, the guy who glamorized sex-with-liver in Portnoy’s Complaint.” Mr. Updike offers the same bill of particulars (“neurasthenic…, adulterous, callously selfish, and financially vindictive”) as does Ms. Nelson (“neurotic, a womanizer, a venal nutcase”). Like her, he adduces no evidence other than Miss Bloom’s book. But while I might ignore her in an obscure review on the World Wide Web, I cannot ignore him in a lead essay in The New York Review of Books.
Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut
John Updike replies:
Mr. Roth’s imagined revisions sound fine to me, but my own wording conveys, I think, the same sense of one-sided allegations.
My favorite bit of Roth’s honed sense of outrage is the dig at “an obscure review on the World Wide Web”—somehow I don’t think that sentence would read the same way today.
Here’s a recent TV profile of Roth, complete with Roth visiting his childhood home in Newark and also briefly addressing Bloom’s memoir, which he calls “libel”: