Note: Hyperlinked book titles in this essay will access each book's entry in the 20th-Century American Bestsellers database in a new browser window.
Though it is easy to attribute the success of Portnoy's Complaint to the rage of controversy that surrounded its reception, the trends of bestselling fiction and nonfiction in the late 1960s show that Roth's novel appealed to a reading public that was already very interested and seriously engaged with issues like the sexual revolution and Jewish-American cultural identity. Portnoy was remarkably well positioned in the era's book-selling market, and while the hysteria over its transgressive content no doubt provoked widespread interest that contributed to its impressive sales in 1969, the novel's reviews and its lasting legacy within scholarly criticism indicate that readers found it to be much more than just a dirty little book or one of the many "guilty pleasures" that found their ways onto the bestseller charts.
The novel's excessive and uncensored sexual content is, arguably, the feature that most attracted readers' attention and challenged their notions of propriety. Only seventeen pages into the novel, we encounter an entire chapter entitled "Whacking Off," filled with Alexander Portnoy's vivid recounting of his adolescent masturbatory rites and fantasies. In fact, autoeroticism persists as one of the novel's primary themes, as a subsequent chapter, entitled "Cunt Crazy," begins arrestingly with Alex's question, "Did I mention that when I was fifteen I took it out of my pants and whacked off on the 107 bus from New York?" (Roth 78). Alex also describes his non-masturbatory sex experiences in great, unrefined detail, freely using three- and four-letter words and avoiding erotic euphemism whenever possible.
Perhaps the language that Roth employs in Portnoy pushes the expectations found in other "literary" (i.e., not intently pornographic) fiction's treatment of sex, but a quick survey of the many "sexy" bestsellers from the mid- to late-1960s indicates that readers could not have been too scandalized by a novel that focuses so much on sex. For example, in 1969, Portnoy shared the bestseller stage with four other sex novels: Jacqueline Susann's The Love Machine, Harold Robbins' The Inheritors, Irving Wallace's The Seven Minutes, and most interestingly, the suburban sex romp Naked Came the Stranger, attributed to the pseudonymous Penelope Ashe but in fact written by a group of journalists as a parody of the ubiquitous trashy suburban sex novel. The previous year saw two bestsellers notable for their sexiness, both written by established literary authors: John Updike's Couples and Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge. Furthermore, amid the nonfiction lists, human sexual behavior proved to be a bestselling topic, from Masters and Johnston's clinical report Human Sexual Response (1966) to the more end-user-friendly Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask by David Reuben (1970).
Clearly, sex was on the minds of many American readers at this time, and one thing that distinguishes Portnoy's Complaint from many other "sex novels" both on and off the bestseller lists of the times is the fact that the sex in Portnoy is rarely actually sexy. Portnoy's sexual exploits are sometimes comic, sometimes disturbing, and often a combination of both, as in his description of a ménage à trois:
"I can best describe the state I subsequently entered as one of unrelieved busy-ness. Boy was I busy! I mean there was just so much to do. You go here and I'll go there ? okay, now you go here and I'll go there ? all right, now she goes down that way, while I head up this way, and you sort of half turn around on this . . . . Then I got up, went into the bathroom, and, you'll all be happy to know, regurgitated my dinner. My kishkas, Mother ? threw them right up into the toilet bowl. Isn't that a good boy?" (Roth 137-8).
The abundant sex scenes and references in the novel rarely seem to be gratifying for the reader, even when they do happen to be gratifying for Portnoy, indicating that more is happening in this book than the prurient appeal of, say, Susann's The Love Machine
. As a contemporaneous reviewer in the London Times Literary Supplement
noted, "If this were just the old masochistic spiral of sexual degradation, these confessions to a psychoanalyst . . . might verge on pornography. . . . Yet it is the comedy which is triumphant ? a peculiarly Jewish comedy on the borderlines of fantasy and despair, exhibitionism and strongly felt ethical impulses, sexual lust and overriding feelings of shame" ("Who needs dreams?" 405). Portnoy's Complaint
is unquestionably a dirty book, but its excessive vulgarity and explicit sex scenes belie the novel's very earnest concern with how sexuality, ethnicity, and cultural identity intersect in ways that are potentially damaging to the human spirit. As its reception history shows, many other contemporaneous reviewers rushed to support a similarly open-minded, judicious reading of the novel's thematic content, urging readers to approach Portnoy's Complaint
as a critical intervention in American and Jewish-American culture, rather than just faddish fiction.
Roth's interrogation of Jewish-American identity in Portnoy's Complaint
was also well anticipated, based on the trends of bestselling fiction in the years preceding its release. In fact, from its inception with Goodbye, Columbus
in 1959, Roth's nascent literary success had been founded on its critical stance toward Jewish-American middle-class culture. During the decade between Goodbye, Columbus
, the genre of the "Jewish-American novel" definitely came into its own, with Saul Bellow's Herzog
setting the standard in terms of popularity and the gravity of its examination of contemporary Jewish life in the United States (the novel held the #3 spot for two years running, in 1964 and 1965). Indeed, in contemporaneous reviews, Portnoy's Complaint
was often compared with the monolithic Herzog
, the latter usually representing the ultimate standard of the serious Jewish novel of ideas that Portnoy
failed to approximate. (In a curiously culinary condemnation, Anatole Broyard in The New Republic
went so far as to liken Herzog
to "the ultimate halvah of the Jewish intellectual" while Alexander Portnoy represented "a real (matzoh) ballsy guy" (21).) Several other classics in Jewish-American fiction followed Herzog
's success in the late 1960s, all of whose authors Roth was compared with at one point or another: Bernard Malamud's The Fixer
(1966), Stephen Birmingham's Our Crowd
(1967), and Chaim Potok's The Chosen
(1967) and The Promise
The success of these and many other Jewish-American novels testifies to the reading public's sustained engagement with many of the same ethnic and cultural issues that Portnoy's Complaint
continues to work through, albeit in its own radical and uncompromising manner. It seems fair to assume, then, that plenty of the 418,000 copies of Portnoy
sold in 1969 (as well as the millions of paperback reprints in later years) were no doubt purchased ? and read, reviewed, and re-interpreted in scholarly articles ? by serious readers with a critical interest in charting the development of Jewish-American literary arts, not just feckless sensationalists looking for the latest thrill or scandal.
Of course, despite the fact that Portnoy
sold like hotcakes, many members of the Jewish-American community simply weren't buying Roth's harsh critique of Jewish life. Writing in Commentary
, the cultural opinion magazine published by the American Jewish Committee, reviewer Peter Shaw discusses how Roth's use of Jewish stereotypes (which, of course, the entire Portnoy family represents) fails to combat anti-Semitism in American culture:
Roth's Jewish characters are an illustration of his theory that for the Jews to deal with their enemies, "it is necessary to unlearn certain responses to them." The "new response," presumably, must be comically to exaggerate the anti-Semitic stereotype in order to dissolve it in laughter. This is extremely clever, of course ? except that it is hopeless . . . . [S]ince anti-Semitism is itself only apparently a response to actual Jewish behavior, no alteration in behavior ? not separatism, assimilation, accommodation, nor defiance, as the "un-Jewish" Israelis have learned ? has ever been able to affect it significantly. Not even art can eliminate it. (79)
Shaw identifies the vexed relationship between Roth's fiction and the fight against anti-Semitism in the twentieth century, declaring that Roth's use of Jewish caricatures in Portnoy's Complaint
? even if only to reveal such stereotypes' inherent fallacies and thereby transcend such uncritical thinking ? nonetheless is harmful toward the Jewish community: "if he has not decidedly been bad for the Jews, he has decidedly been bad to them" (79).
Shaw's response to Portnoy
is perhaps one of the more nuanced negative reactions of Roth's criticism of Jewishness, especially compared to critic Irving Howe's condemnations of Roth as a "self-hating Jew" in his response to Goodbye, Columbus
and his excoriating 1972 review in Commentary
of Roth's early career, accusing Roth "of being a vulgarian, of reducing his characters to objects of easy derision" ("Philip Roth" para. 7). Throughout the Jewish community, Roth has had both his detractors and his supporters, but both parties can agree that Roth's contribution to Jewish-American fiction in the later twentieth century has without a doubt dealt a devastating blow, for better or for worse. The bombshell that Portnoy's Complaint
dropped in 1969 represents, to some, the point of aesthetic exhaustion of the possibilities of the "genre of the so-called Jewish novel" and "a new point of departure" for Jewish-American (and simply American) fiction (Lehmann-Haupt 39). Others, of course, see the novel as nothing less than incontrovertible evidence of the "bankruptcy of imagination and vision" in Jewish-American letters (Kirsch 34).
's comic irreverence toward both sexual prudery and Jewish-American traditionalism appealed to the deep-seated interests of a serious reading public turning to current fiction as a way of making sense of the seismic social upheaval that the 1960s represented. Granted, the scandal surrounding the novel's boundary-challenging excesses definitely attracted plenty of other less "serious" readers whose purchasing decisions were obviously more influenced by the book's controversy than its cultural critique. Witness the following bookseller's dispatch in the "Currents" section of the April 28, 1969 issue of Publishers' Weekly
Writes Jim Matthews of the Book Nook, Clayton, Missouri: "A woman customer, obviously flustered, rang us up to inquire, ?Do you have any copies of "Pornography's Complaint?"' Discreetly, we replied that we did." (40)
It would be difficult ? if not impossible ? to determine to what precise degree Portnoy's Complaint
's unprecedented commercial success in 1969 was thanks to such misinformed, scandal-driven consumers as this nameless Midwestern woman, versus the more sophisticated readers who found in Roth's novel an intelligent, biting satire of sexuality, ethnicity, and religion in contemporary America. However, the continued
commercial and critical success of the book long after its much-ballyhooed burst onto the literary scene, as well as evidence from the trends in bestsellers in the 1960s, all show that Portnoy's Complaint
was much more than just a sensational bestseller; Roth's revolutionary novel fulfilled ? and continues to fulfill ? readers' needs and desires to hear a resounding, redefining voice that rebels against repression and societal restraint.
Broyard, Anatole. "A Sort of Moby Dick." New Republic. 1 Mar. 1969: p. 21-2.
"Currents." Publishers' Weekly. 28 Apr. 1969: 39-40.
Kirsch, Robert. "Roth Novel: More of His Sour, Limited Statement." Los Angeles Times 16 Feb. 1969: T1, 34.
Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Jew." New York Times 18 Feb. 1969: 39.
"Philip Roth." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 28: Twentieth-Century American-Jewish Fiction Writers. Detroit: The Gale Group, 1984. 264-275. Accessed through Literature Resource Center on May 1, 2006.
Roth, Philip. Portnoy's Complaint. New York: Random House, 1969.
Shaw, Peter. "Portnoy & His Creator." Commentary 47.5 (May 1969): 77.
"Who needs dreams?" TLS: Times Literary Supplement 17 Apr. 1969: 405.