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Is Alexander Portnoy White?

It’s struck me lately that the American writer perhaps most deeply associated with White Male Writer-ness is one who made his name writing fiction about identity. Google “Philip Roth” and “white male” and you find an endless stream of essays that offer up Roth as a prime example of the white male literary novelist. As a prime example, that is, of the demographic of writers whose work gets the noble (if not Nobel) literary treatment, while any writer who isn’t a white dude gets dismissed as unimportant or merely political, and certainly not universal.

What’s curious to me about that classification is that when Roth was starting out, it was still a novelty for a Jew to be a mainstream American author, as versus a stereotyped character in a work by a non-Jewish author. Roth’s brilliant and controversial 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint is about the experience of racial and cultural Otherness in white American society. If whiteness is an easy, carefree, oblivious relationship to race, then it’s awfully difficult to classify Alexander Portnoy as white. I mean, apart from Portnoy’s obsession with non-Jewish white women, there’s the scene where he discusses why Jews like Chinese restaurants, spelling out that to Chinese restauranteurs, Jews are simply white.

And yet that same episode serves as a reminder that for all Portnoy’s identity issues, Jews were, even in his day, among the whiter Americans. Philip Roth represents literary Otherness on just one axis: Straight, white-looking, male, Anglophone, in every way but the one, the literary-voice default. As such, he doesn’t set off those discreetly racist, ‘Oh noes, the PC Police are forcing me to prioritize diversity over Great Literature!’ alarm bells. (As a Jewish woman – heck, as a woman – anything I write is ‘identity’.) For reasons deeply connected to those of Jewish society-at-large, what was initially Peak Identity Literature got recast as just another neurotic-white-dude narrative.

Where, then, does Portnoy stand now? Will Roth still, in Trump’s America, be the go-to image, in the collective imagination, of the White Male Writer? Or will he have come full circle and get the ‘identity’ treatment once more, a “Jewish writer” again whether he likes it or not?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy edits the Sisterhood, and can be reached at [email protected]. Her book, The Perils of “Privilege”, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in March 2017.

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