Two years after the death of the American novelist Philip Roth, the English-speaking literary world has reignited debates over Roth’s morality and the morality of his work. A new official biography by Blake Bailey, kindled this controversy, which has focused on Roth’s treatment of women—in life and in fiction. First, some reviewers faulted the biography for not pushing back against misogyny. Next, outlets began reporting that Bailey himself stood accused of sexual misconduct. The emerging conversation mixed Bailey’s alleged real-life behavior not only with Roth’s comportment toward women, but also with the content of Roth’s novels. Increasingly, meanwhile, critics and readers of English-language literature have come to define “good” books not in terms of artistic value or literary innovation but, rather, according to whether the book—its content, its author’s politics and identity, and perhaps even the author’s biographer—furthers a progressive political message. In this environment, can fiction still resist the politicization of everything?

The essayist and literary critic Becca Rothfeld fears that it may be too late. Rothfeld describes a phenomenon she calls “sanctimony literature,” or fiction with unsubtle leftist politics, that demands “simplistic” political interpretations. She argues that publishers, and even authors themselves, encourage readers to view all writers, and all writing, as politically good or bad. While overtly political novels are not a new phenomenon, readers have come to expect them, rejecting more complex or compelling literature. Rothfeld doesn’t attribute the rise of “sanctimony literature” simply to a political culture where smugness is everywhere. Rather, she cites the popularity of autobiographical fiction, paired with a marketing expectation that authors personally represent the product they’re selling. “Aesthetic value is destroyed,” she says, “not when people read for any sort of political message, but when they read in this particular didactic way.”

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: Is fiction special among kinds of writing in the way it’s able to play with ambiguity?

Becca Rothfeld: Fiction lends itself to ambiguity more than some other forms of writing. But I wouldn’t say all. There are certain kinds of creative nonfiction, and then there’s poetry and those lend themselves to ambiguity in the same sorts of ways. Certainly one wouldn’t expect that all of the contents of a work of fiction be endorsed by their author, in the way as one would with a work of philosophy or theory.

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