The Woman Upstairs

Would Philip Roth Be Asked The Same Question?

In Discussion by Dennis Abrams

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.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for children's publishing and media. He's also the author of more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers, a restaurant critic, and a literary blogger.