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TV review: Imagine - Philip Roth on sex and the American dream

From masturbation to the American Dream, Philip Roth's career trajectory has been spectacular, covering 'the heights of love to the depths of depravity'.

He found literary stardom in 1969 with the notorious novel Portnoy's Complaint which detailed the angst of a boy gripped with masturbation.

The book was an instant sensation. His first, Goodbye Columbus, had only sold 4,000 copies; it was when he began writing about sex and the misuse of raw liver that he found fame.

This programme was the first in a two-part interview for the Imagine series and Alan Yentob finally got to sit down and talk with the elusive Roth. The author was casual and informal on screen, a far cry from the acerbic or prickly character I'd have expected from reading his novels. So relaxed was he that, when Yentob read some salacious stuff from Portnoy's Complaint, Roth just grinned and said 'do you want me to apologise?'

Indeed, 17 minutes into the programme, Yentob was still on the topic of sex, demonstrating the lingering impact of his early controversial book. But as he says, do we want him to apologise?

No, and why should he? He is done with public life, announcing 'this is my last appearance on television, absolutely my last appearance on stage anywhere', and so he can retire and draw the curtain, secure in the knowledge he has worked hard and well to become what most people consider to be America's finest living writer. Such a man has no need to apologise for his word choice.

Yes, we may flinch when reading the more graphic parts of his work but he remains one of the world's most revered writers, there is constant grumbling about why he hasn't been awarded the Nobel Prize and, in the greatest gesture of popular acceptance, there are now coach tours around his old stomping grounds of Newark, New Jersey.

It just shows how attitudes evolve: he was once pilloried but now he has a plaza named after him.

'We had tremendous verbal freedom' he says of his youth in the old days and this allowed him to strike out and express what few others dared. But that surely wouldn't be the case now, in our politically correct culture where nursery rhymes are gutted and rewritten incase someone, somewhere, takes offence. If you type the phrase 'I am outraged' into Twitter the laptop starts to smoke and flicker. I understand there is a laboratory in Bletchley Park currently working on a computer which can cope with the online weight of Great British outrage.

So much is forbidden. So much will have you sniped at and snapped at and told to apologise and retract and wash out your language with disinfectant.

I wrote an article once about food banks and interviewed a woman, sick with cancer, who had been left to starve. I played at being a journalist that day, with my smart satchel and my new Dictaphone, but as soon as I was safely out in the rainy street I cried. At the train station, sniffing and whimpering, I was already creating phrases in my head for the great, crusading article I'd write. And, of course, when it appeared, someone managed to get offended. Foodbanks are an abomination, they said, and I'm doing the work of the Tory government in highlighting their existence. Shame on me. I'd dried my tears by then so just sighed, realising that there will always be people queuing up to be offended, regardless of the subject.

I could write an article called Cute Puppies Kicked by Bad Man and would still manage to upset someone. How dare you focus on puppies when there are children being hurt? Why do you focus only on cute puppies? What about the manky ones? I am outraged!

In fact, the only person permitted to outrage us these days is Nigel Farage. Whilst everyone else must verbally tiptoe, he can belt out the most coarse and vile nonsense. We seem to flock to news stories about his latest bungles. It's almost as though we're secretly glad to hear someone speaking bluntly without the careful sheen of correctness. He is a traveller from an antique land and, judging by the shares, tweets and comments under any online news article about him, we are falling over ourselves to read it.

So, in this sanitised era of faux outrage how would a young Philip Roth fare? If he tweeted a graphic scene from Portnoy today would he be assailed by armies of offended folk? Would Twitter ban him? Would his publisher ask him to withdraw it? What would Mumsnet say?

But maybe it was the fog of outrage that forced Philip Roth forward. Coming of age in 1950s conformist America he had to kick against it - and undoubtedly kick hard - so perhaps it actually helped create Roth and I can only hope that today's prissy outraged mobs help forge another bunch of angry, restless writers or God help us all. For every arrogant complaint letter and every poorly-spelled Facebook outburst and every self-righteous tweet, I hope a new Roth is out there, writing another chapter.

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