Philip Roth Unleashed, TV review: Misogyny unbound as Yentob and Roth enjoy literary love-in

 

If you were Alan Yentob, the presenter/editor of Imagine – Philip Roth Unleashed, who had been trying to persuade “America’s greatest living writer” to appear on your programme for more than 20 years, then perhaps the greatness of your subject would seem self-evident. But if you were one of those “shiksa” women that Roth’s books fetishise, or one of the suburban Jews they sometimes mock, or an ex-friend mercilessly co-opted into his fiction, then you might have appreciated a more rounded portrait.

In the first part of this double bill, which aired last week, Imagine made the case for Roth’s greatness: 80 years on earth, 31 books, 10 major literary prizes and a road named after him in his home town of Newark, New Jersey. This case is unassailable and Roth was an engaged, analytic interviewee. Not all such prolific novelists can remember their books in such detail and certainly not all such eightysomething prolific novelists. But shouldn’t the very fact of Roth’s unassailable greatness have made some criticism of his work permissible?

The matter of his treatment of women was touched on briefly – though not with Roth himself. Two of his female friends, his biographer Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation) and Irish novelist Edna O’Brien, were drafted in to defend him against the straw man accusation of misogyny. The real objection is less stark, but more damning. As critic Keith Gessen wrote: “Roth is slightly less useful in a world that is slightly more equal than the world he knew; where men and women do not stand on opposite sides of the question of sex, but arranged, together, sometimes helplessly, against it.” 

This was apparently also a blind spot for Yentob. In one particularly cringing moment our presenter read aloud a passage in which Roth describes female orgasm before asking: “How do you know all these things about women? About how it works for them?” If any gentle sarcasm was implied here, Roth did not acknowledge it. One man congratulating another on his understanding of a subjective female experience, in the complete absence of any women. This was unconscious sexism at its most ludicrous.

Yet if Yentob had challenged Roth more, it’s likely we would still be waiting for this long-awaited interview. Then we’d have been deprived of an overview which, while by no means comprehensive, does represent the great writer and great egotist’s final thoughts on himself – a not inconsiderable coup. As Roth obligingly said in conclusion: “I can guarantee you that this is my last appearance ever on television...absolutely last appearance on any stage anywhere.”

If you want to understand America, read Roth’s American Pastoral, but if you want to understand Britain, watch Channel 4’s new three-part documentary series The Complainers, which began last night. It introduced us to a “new breed of super complainer”, including Lewis aka “Traffic Droid”, a man who cycles around London booming instructions at other road users. It also suggested a terrifying vision of a future in which five per cent of the population are full-time complainers, having all their emotional needs met by customer service hotlines, and the other 95 per cent work in  a call centres, servicing those needs. 

After time spent in the company of super-complainers, faceless bureaucracy has never looked so sympathetic. Bus driver Tony, for instance, has all the makings of a folk hero. Following a string of complaints regarding his rudeness to passengers, he’s been referred for further training, but it seems unlikely to stick. “They’re my customers, but they’re not always right and I know that for a fact,” he said, defiantly. “I’m always right.”

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk