Philip Roth: “Shame Isn’t For Writers”


With the publication of the best-selling onanism epic Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969, people would randomly shout at author Philip Roth on the street, “Leave it alone!”

They may have had a point, but Roth, of course, was writing about a character–though he admits that having an alter ego on the printed page can become a valuable mask or shield.

His main alter ego all these years has been the character Nathan Zuckerman (a writer, of course), and in the documentary Philip Roth: Unmasked–which I saw at Film Forum last night–Roth says that in nine of his books, Zuckerman has no sexual experience at all.

“He’s described repeatedly as ‘sex obsessed’,” observes Roth of his critics. “That’s because Roth is.”

And that’s OK. As he also admits, “shame isn’t for writers.”

He further explains, “It doesn’t mean you have to be obscene and smear your pages with feces. But when I sit down to write, I’m free of shame.”

Same here. But I keep the feces on hand just in case.

By the way, the doc doesn’t delve into his relationship with Claire Bloom–surely they could have found some way to link that to Roth’s creative process, but he’s famously private and doesn’t go there. It also omits film clips from Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint (the latter, which features Lee Grant and Karen Black, is better than they say).

But it does include Mia Farrow as a talking head. And she knows from men with sexual obsessions.


Archive Highlights