In recent days, the literary media landscape has grown fat with seemingly compulsory contemplations of the psyche of a dead man: Philip Roth. One of the 20th century’s most famous American novelists, Roth is now the subject of a new posthumous biography. The work is inspiring many summaries and reconsiderations of not just the man himself, but the general archetype of name-taking machismo that he came to embody to many. Noteable in both his biography and all the writing about it is how incredibly petty of a man Roth was; some have gone so far as to suggest that the primary purpose of the new book, written by Blake Bailey—who Roth hired, after firing a writer who he deemed less worthy of the task—is to settle scores. With ex-lovers, with critics, and with the people who make decisions about the highest of literary awards; with, for lack of a better term, the haters.
There’s plenty of room for debate—and plenty of actual debate—about how to weigh Roth’s vindictive, insecure worldview against appraisals of his work. Personally, I pay it close to no mind, though there are select moments when the less enjoyable imperfections of his writing overlap with his deficiencies as a human. Others may choose to disregard his place in the canon when hearing of his greater interpersonal sins, and that’s certainly their prerogative. I would say that’s probably a mistake, given how effectively Roth told stories of various selves battling against their own sense of history, culture, politics, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and power. Roth almost always did this with tremendous momentum, humor, and context. Like many others, I consider my life enriched by his work.
Relatedly, one of my favorite basketball players is Kevin Durant. Durant is a man who, like Roth, cannot handle fame with grace. The latest in a now long history of Durant’s battles with his own haters, on the internet, includes an unsightly collision with obnoxious C-list character actor Michael Rapaport. After Rapaport mildly criticized Durant for acting less than totally enthused during a post-game interview on TNT, this past December, Durant sent Rapoport some private messages. The 2014 NBA MVP’s rhetoric, as screenshots that Rapoport posted publicly demonstrate, escalated quickly into a series of off-color remarks and an invitation to fight outside a specific steakhouse in Manhattan.
Durant was fined $50,000 by the league for the P.R. grief it caused them, and Durant apologized. Embarrassing as all this was, none of it, of course, has anything to do with the astonishing blend of power and finesse that the seven-footer brings to the floor. Physically and aesthetically, he is the definition of a singular player, and clearly plays with a sense of style earned over decades of loving and studying the game. Basketball does not offer quite the number of opportunities to fuse performance with psychology as literature does; Durant’s game is not, in other words, as susceptible to being burdened by his grievances as Roth’s prose might have been.
Differences in medium aside, that the two men are so hotly discussed today—albeit in very different places, and mostly by very different people—is a testament to how fixated our culture is on men who are equal parts broken and brilliant. That neither have ever learned how to let anything go, how to let anything large medium or small melt into water that runs harmlessly down their backs, can be frightening to perceive. Imagine getting all the way to the top of the highest mountain you could find, and being too perturbed by some of the dust you saw near its bottom to enjoy the view.
Durant is 32, and has plenty of time to change this difficulty with joy and satisfaction about himself—and not die, as Roth did, feeling like his imagined enemies are living too well, and being so bothered by this that he made sure his ghost went on to talk smack from beyond his grave. There seems to be quite a ways to go, though: a big stage, hateful excoriation of the man probably most remembered for appearing in a single sketch on “Chappelle’s Show” suggests as much, anyway. Rapaport’s instigating criticism was tepid, and lame—hardly fighting words, as Durant seems to have taken them, and more accurately just the kind of replacement-level, nothing-burger brainjunk that Twitter is too full of to really quantify.
Roth was well into his 70’s when social media took over the cultural world, and it’s fair to wonder whether he could have handled the bandwidth it gives to skeptics of all sizes, had it overlapped with the zenith of his career and life as it has Durant’s. The sea of visible, recorded negativity is simply so much larger than it used to be, and it has done a gnarly number on celebrity ego at large. There are many dark ways to be overly logged on, but that of the famous person who is addicted to seeing and responding to bad comments about them is one of the tougher ones to swallow. Durant appears very unhappy when he does this; like he is much closer drowning in that sea than logging off. I, for one, sincerely hope that Durant learns to let go enough that in the years after his playing career, he avoids a Roth-like fame arc, and we are able speak more of his excellence on the court than his bitterness off of it.