Over at Gawker this morning J. K. Trotter dishes the dirt on Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. Or, rather, its dust jacket. Trotter reports that the sliver of the anonymous letter pictured on the cover, which Delphine Roux sends to Coleman Silk in the novel—
sexually exploiting an
woman half your
Gray denies sending any such letter, of course. And it never occurs to Trotter to ask the obvious question. If Roth actually received an anonymous note like Coleman Silk’s then who was his Faunia Farley, the “abused, illiterate woman” he was supposed to be sexually exploiting?
There is an even more obvious question. What difference, for an understanding and appreciation of the novel, could it possibly make? Like so many of those who hang around the fringes of literature, Trotter is more interested in gossip, the easy externals, than in the working machinery of fiction.
This isn’t the first time Roth has been obliged to defend The Human Stain from “the babble of literary gossip.” Last year he wrote an open letter to Wikipedia in which he patiently explained that the late Anatole Broyard, a critic for the New York Times who “passed” as white despite black parentage, was not the original of Coleman Silk. Like Mickey Sabbath and Swede Levov, his main character was “invented from scratch.” Roth explained how fiction works:
Thus it may be the fact that John Williams was “inspired” to write his brilliant novel Stoner by a “real-life feud” in the English department at the University of Missouri, as two journalists claim in a recent article in Vox, or it may be the fact that J. V. Cunningham was the original for William Stoner, as the late Donald E. Stanford told me when I visited him in Baton Rouge (and as I told Bryan Appleyard of the Sunday Times twenty years later). But the actual facts are irrelevant to the fiction, which depends on how Williams transmuted them into a coherent world of new and interdependent facts.
Dust jackets and the originals of fictional characters are what we babble about when we don’t know how to talk about fiction. Sportswriters do much the same, yammering away about Johnny Manziel’s partying or Tim Tebow’s praying to avoid the effort of understanding difficult games from the inside. The gossip is harmless except when it masquerades as knowledge. In literature, it threatens to reduce every novel ever written to a roman à clef. When that happens, the only thing readers will need is a key.