Philip Roth, & The Ethics of Writing


Now & again the question of what is okay to write about comes up. When it does, I always conclude that it was okay for whomever to write about whatever they did.

So do I think it’s cool for anybody to write about anything?

I found an example of something I don’t think is okay: Philip Roth writing about a Vietnam vet in The Human Stain. The problem is that his Vietnam vet is pure stereotype: In Vietnam, he went in friendly and innocent, but pretty soon was killing civilians for no reason and saving their body parts as souvenirs, just like everyone else (according to him). After coming home, he remains tripped out all day, every day, for 30 years, on PTSD; angry, violent, murderous, resentful, paranoid; constantly thinking about killing; hallucinating and unable to distinguish fantasy from reality. He has no character beyond that. And he isn’t a background character; he’s central to the action and themes of the novel.

It’s a very famous novel, but no one seems to have given him shit for this.

This is one thing that crosses my redline: Writing a main character as an over-the-top negative stereotype of something you haven’t experienced. Philip Roth was in the Army, at least–in 1955 and 1956, after Korea but before Vietnam.


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