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Would Philip Roth Be Asked The Same Question?

By Dennis Abrams

The Woman UpstairsThe Woman Upstairs (Knopf) has been receiving rave reviews pretty much across the board. But in recent interview with Publishers Weekly Messud grew frustrated with the line of questioning, particularly about her novel’s main character Nora Eldridge.

After being asked, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim,” Messud responded:

“For heavens sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’”

But it goes beyond merely that, I think.

Was it not just a bad question for the reasons Messud pointed out, but a question that makes assumptions about books by female authors (and those book’s characters) that would never be made about books by male authors?

Would, for example, Phillip Roth ever be asked “Would you want to be friends with Portnoy?”

Agree, disagree? Let us know what you think in the comments.

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  1. erin
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    As much as I’m for women writers being seen for their writing and not their gender, I think this is a silly thing to protest and has nothing to do with her gender. What the interviewer was asking seems deeper…would someone want to endure reading about someone they had no interest in? There are hundreds of thousands of books I want to read and, if I don’t feel like a character or story is entertaining/teaching/enlightening me in any way or I can’t stand the characters, I simply put it down and go on to the next book. Not to say that a writer shouldn’t write the story that they want to write or that one should cater to my whims or interests as a reader, but I think the question was legitimate and to become outraged instead of clarifying the question seems to be finding prejudice where none really exists.

    If we cry foul at every turn, how will people ever take us seriously? Stop pointing out that we are separate and just claim equality.

  2. J.S. Peyton
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Erin says: “What the interviewer was asking seems deeper…would someone want to endure reading about someone they had no interest in?”

    I don’t think the interviewer was asking that at all. In fact, if the interviewer intended the ask that very question, they could have asked exactly that. Reading about a character who is “unbearably grim” is not the same as reading about a character that is uninteresting. Grim characters can be and often are interesting. I don’t think anyone would accuse many of the characters that Massud lists as having a rosy outlook on life. That doesn’t mean I can’t find Hamlet to be an interesting character about whom I would like to read. I don’t always want to be friends with interesting characters, nor do I want to read only about characters with whom I’d like to be friends.

    It’s a rather silly question, and I don’t blame Massud for firing back after having it lodged at her several times over. I can’t say for sure whether it’s due to sexism or not, but I do wonder how often this question is asked of male authors. But, even if it’s not sexist, I think the question is a inane one because it misunderstands the reasons why many of us read – it isn’t always about trying to make “literary friends.”

  3. Lori
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    I was listening to Terry Gross interview Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, the other day on NPR. She asked a similar question about Don Draper, the lead character. She said, “How much do you want us to hate Don Draper? Because as much as I, to some degree, empathize with his existential crises, he’s such a hypocrite, he’s such a louse. He so mistreats his wife that I get so angry with him. How much do you want me to dislike him vs. feeling some sympathy for his existential crisis? ” And Weiner’s response was: “I don’t want you to dislike him at all. I don’t dislike any of these people…and I think you are supposed to identify with the dark parts of yourself…I want you to have an investment in him in his worst state….”

    Messud is likely annoyed that women in our culture generally feel more pressure to be “likable” than their male counterparts, and I think this annoyance carried over into her answer. But I don’t think the same question would have ruffled a male writer. Whether a male writer would be asked the same question…I don’t know. I do know that Terry Gross (a female) asked something similar to Matt Weiner (a male writer). Perhaps the question didn’t ruffle Matt Weiner because he does not put his characters in the same league as Hamlet, Oedipus, and Antigone. Honestly, Messud’s answer seemed unnecessarily unpleasant, self-serious, and defensive. But no doubt this stemmed from the insecurity most women carry with them, after centuries of not being taken as seriously as men in a professional capacity.

  4. Lori
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    As an addendum: yes, the question was definitely not the best (Terry’s was much better, I thought). But a graceful and gracious interviewee finds a way to make his/her point without making the journalist feel stupid. I think both parties come off looking better when the interviewee tries to enlighten without “shaming” anyone.

  5. Reader
    Posted May 3, 2013 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    I think this is a stretch at best. It just seems like a silly question to ask any author, and yet the kind of question that’s often asked to appeal to a broad audience. I don’t think it’s anything to do with the author’s sex, but more with the interviewer’s skills (or lack thereof).

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