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Man Booker International Prize nominees: Everybody’s overrated.

March 30, 2011

Anne Tyler

I sat down this morning to praise John le Carre for asking his name be removed from the short list for the Man Booker International Prize. But then I flashed on my longstanding conviction that, really, he’s overrated. If he simply wrote more clearly, he would seem less literary.

Maybe I’m in a mood today, because then I immediately thought of of the other writers on the shortlist of 13 (why 13? what an odd number), and damn if they aren’t overrated, too.

Philip Roth? A great stylist, an avatar of his time (which ended about 1986, with The Counterlife), and certainly deserving of a major lifetime achievement honor. But: Like Saul Bellow he has an ugly strain of misogyny running through his work, and like Woody Allan his late work has too many creepy old men cavorting (unconvincingly) with nubile young women.

Marilyn Robinson? A deeply subtle and graceful novelist who explores particularly American varieties of faith and morality to great effect — but do her narratives have to always be so damned pokey?

Anne Tyler? The epitome of the middle-brow entertainer, Tyler is to be admired for trying to find the drama and significance in ordinary lives — but, like John Irving, she relies too much on cutesiness and eccentricity.

Phillip Pullman? The man has written a raft of books, but his reputation rests almost entirely on the His Dark Materials trilogy, a Young Adult fantasy famous for its atheistic underpinnings. Stylistically sophisticated, but undercooked. I didn’t read past the first volume.

Really, though, any of these writers might be said to deserve the Man Booker International (and its $96,000 prize), except for Tyler, who is, in the end, a mediocrity. I confess I’ve read them all, even Tyler, with pleasure.

Someone really smart — I think it was Graham Greene, but I can’t find the citation–once said something to the effect that it’s impossible to determine the quality of a novel until it’s been around for 20 years.

I’d amend that to 50. Apart from the ebb and flow of critical opinion during an author’s life, there is the inevitable backlash, dismissal and revival that comes after her or she dies. The quintessential example is Hemingway, who, died in 1961 with his critical reputation at a high point. By the ’70s, he was in serious disfavor. And today he has found what will probably be his permanent place — and it’s pretty close to the high-water mark.

The Man Booker International, like the Nobel, honors only living writers, however. The posthumous sifting of the authorial soul lies lies yet ahead. Naming one of these writers as more deserving than the others is like picking the Player of the Year before the playoffs — which, come to think, is exactly what Major League Baseball does.

In any event, I’ve always said that ranking living writers according to perceived quality, or pitting their books against one another,  and selecting one or another as better than the rest is a fraudulent activity, which is why I admire Le Carre.

“I am enormously flattered to be named as a finalist of the 2011 Man Booker International prize,” Le Carré said in a statement reported by the Guardian. “However, I do not compete for literary prizes and have therefore asked for my name to be withdrawn.”

The prize’s organizers are taking a don’t-be-silly attitude: “John le Carré’s name will, of course, remain on the list,” says Rick Gekoski. “We are disappointed that he wants to withdraw from further consideration because we are great admirers of his work.”

As much as I despise cultural prizes (“badges of mediocrity,” at least to those who never win one), I acknowledge that they serve the function of keeping books and the arts in the public eye — never more important than today. And of course I am not immune from the conversation.

No, I haven’t read all 13 writers on the list, but since the prize is meaningless anyway, I say let’s give the damned thing to Roth as consolation for the Nobel Prize he’s probably never going to get.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2011 8:47 pm

    I’ll go with that, Chauncey. Roth it is, even though basically he writes the same story over and over. Anyone else they would just call him a dirty old man.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 31, 2011 9:11 am

      Roth is a dirty old man, all right. He was a dirty young man, too. As Todd says below, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What’s bad from my point of view, is that his last decent book came in the mid-’80s. Okay, I confess, I detested American Pastoral so much I haven’t read anything since. So maybe he’s produced some good or great stuff in the past 15 years, but the reviews (not even the raves) have convinced me to find out for myself. Still, his best books capture his time. He deserves the prize for lifetime achievement. I mean I read The Professor of Desire before I even knew the word “misogyny,” but I could tell this guy didn’t much like women. Nonetheless, it’s a fine example of a certain kind of novel.

  2. todd permalink
    March 31, 2011 12:47 am

    Hate to pick nits, Duff, but your note reads as if calling someone a dirty old man is necessarily a bad thing, or unusual to Philip Roth. Let’s face it: If a male author lives long enough to be considered an old man, then in all likelihood one may assume the descriptive “dirty” applies. Especially if he writes.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 31, 2011 9:12 am

      Todd: Is that the voice of experience I hear?

  3. Todd permalink
    April 2, 2011 4:40 am

    Or might you be listening to some inner voice?

    In my case, I have crashed right through the “dirty” gate onto the “pathetic” track from whence the only escape is the glue factory.

    And then there’s the question of how loosely we define the terms “author” and “writes.”

    (BTW, is “whence” still recognized as a word? Did I use it correctly? Does this site have copy editing software?)

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