As a woman, a Jew, and a writer, I’ve tried for the days since I learned of Roth’s death to parse the grief I felt at that moment. It comes down to the repeated shocks of joy I felt on first reading Portnoy in 1969, before the very different shock of Second-Wave feminism had carried me down different paths, although never away from appreciating his work.

In fact, I think, it was feminism that enabled me to articulate what Portnoy had achieved: Roth had revealed, as no one before him had, the ways in which so many men of my demographic saw women—the Jewish American men of my generation, good men, men I had admired, loved, even married. As everyone has already noted about Roth’s work, I didn’t see myself mirrored in it. The so much smaller proportion of published works by women throughout most of Western history—combined, of course, with the profound differences in experience between the genders in a gender-divided world—has always made it hard for us to find ourselves mirrored in the literary canons.

So no, I didn’t see myself reflected in Portnoy. But I saw men I knew. They were exaggerated, of course. I was pretty sure that no one I knew had ever fucked his own family’s dinner, although I rolled on the floor laughing when I read Alex Portnoy’s confession of having done it.

That’s what writers do. We don’t create real people, God does. We create people who feel real, for the purpose of telling a story. There’s never been a literally real Alex Portnoy, or a literally real Mr. Micawber or Constance Chatterley. (One of my worst arguments with my father in our lives was when he told me how well D.H. Lawrence understood women and I demurred.)

Roth wrote great stories. Like what’s still the preponderance of the canons, they were about men, about what men think and feel and experience, including their experiences of the women in their lives. I’m glad there are more women being published now, glad our stories are being told. But I’m also glad Roth was here to write the ones he wrote.


Now based in ParisJudith Mahoney Pasternak  is a long-time U.S. writer and journalist in the progressive media and an activist for feminism, peace, and Palestinian self-determination.

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