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Roth finally wins a big international prize — and a judge quits in protest.

May 18, 2011

Philip Roth

Really, this was going to be a serious consideration of the controversy surrounding Philip Roth’s  Man Booker International Prize, but then I saw the AP story, with its line about how he “beat off competition from 12 other writers” and all decorum fled out the window.

Good old AP! You can always count on the Associated Press for infelicitous phrasing, if not outright mistatement, so this one should come as no surprise. But it could not be more delicious. Fortunately for the poor scribe who wrote it, the story goes without a byline, which means I do not have to mock him or her by name.

But for the love of God! How could anyone use language like “beat off competition from 12 other writers” in reference to an author whose most famous novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, is primarily a taboo-breaking riff on masturbation?!?

Hold on a minute while I collect myself, because there are some other interesting and fun things in this development I want to tell you about…Ahem. There. I’ve straightened my tie and shot my cuffs. Now we may proceed.

At 77 Roth is  generally regarded as America’s greatest living novelist. He was always the favorite to become the fourth winner of the Booker International Prize and its £60,000 purse — if only because everyone knows the Swedes will almost certainly never bestow him with the Nobel. Thus, the Booker is his consolation prize.

Not everyone agrees, however. One of the three judges, author and publisher Carmen Callil, was so incensed that Roth was even

Carmen Callil

considered that she quit the panel in protest. And she said her piece on the way out the door, too:

“He goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book,” said Callil, founder of the feminist publishing house Virago. “It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.”

Callil found herself at odds with fellow judges Rick Gekowski, a book dealer and author, and novelist Justin Cartwright, not to mention other Brit writers like Linda Grant (author of The Clothes on Their Backs — loved that book!), who says Roth is “without doubt the greatest novelist writing in English today.”

In comments widely reported in newspapers like the Guardian and the Telegraph, both of which have Roth merely “beating,” not “beating off” the competition (sorry! bygones!), Callil had more to say. 

I don’t rate him as a writer at all. I made it clear that I wouldn’t have put him on the longlist, so I was amazed when he stayed there. He was the only one I didn’t admire – all the others were fine. Roth goes to the core of their [Cartwright and Gekoski’s] beings. But he certainly doesn’t go to the core of mine . . .Emperor’s clothes: in 20 years’ time will anyone read him?”

Now take a breath, Carmen. Don’t hold back. One. Two. Three. Go!

“I’ve judged many prizes before and I’ve rarely had my own favourite. We should have discussed everything more but Philip Roth came out like a thunderbolt, and I was too surprised. We took a couple of days to brood, and then I spoke to Justin and said I thought I should give in, if I didn’t have to have anything to do with the winner. So I said I didn’t want my name attached to it, and retired. You can’t be asked to judge, and then not judge.”

Don’t you love such an unrestrained outburst of honest vituperation? I’m not one to defend Roth — I’ve always thought him a bit overrated. A great stylist, sure, but no match for Updike. A keen chronicler of post-war Jewish-American life, true, but a lot of good writers plowed that ground. A serious writer worth close reading, no doubt, and a real master of self-reflective, apparently autobiographical fiction — The Counterlife (1986) is  genuine masterpiece.

But American Pastoral, his big 1997 novel about the Sixties, is bloated and redundant and hatefully overblown (so of course it won the Pulitzer Prize. Of course). Later novels have fallen into the Woody Alan trap — ever more elderly heroes bedding ever more nubile young women. Unbelievable, or creepy, or both.

Still, Callil has promised an essay in Saturday’s Guardian to explain more fully why Roth is unworthy of the prize. The suspense is killing me.

My guess is that Callil’s craw is sticking on Roth’s famous misogyny. Understandably so. But if misogyny is a literary disqualifier then recent history will be bereft of its greatest male authors: Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow and John Updike are merely the top tier among those accused of hating women.

And lest you think it’s a purely American phenomenon, the greatest modern comic novel I’ve read, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, is a veritable orgy of pre-feminist misogyny, while the novels of his son, Martin, have been attacked for the same trait, and not without some small justice.

I’ve always found it a mightily peculiar thing, this shift toward misogyny in post-war letters among some of our best male writers. But they really are our best male writers, and rancid though the bathwater may be, let’s take care to keep the baby.

And finally: Roth “beat off” the competition. Heh-heh. Heh. Priceless.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 18, 2011 1:23 pm

    Barbarians in the literature world. Who would of thought. Same subject of writing over and over. Who would of thought. Sitting on ones face. My goodness. “Would you please pass the jelly.” Misogyny! I can not wait to use that in another setting and discussion. Oh well another day in the industry. The world will go on but never the same.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 18, 2011 2:50 pm

      You need some smelling salts there, Mike?

  2. May 18, 2011 8:52 pm

    Naughty stuff, face-sitting and beating off. But the core of what she says is pretty close to the mark–the same story over and over. I’ve read a lot of Roth. He’s a very good writer, though, like Updike, stuck on those themes that linger almost always below the waist. I raved about Updike’s The Centaur. Read it 3 times and will probably read it again if I don’t lose my marbles between now and then. But Roth? Once is enough. Should he have won the prize? What do I know? Any mention of Joyce Carol Oates?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 19, 2011 7:31 pm

      Nope, but I don’t think she deserves any more prizes, either. She’s long since become a self-parody.

  3. May 18, 2011 9:27 pm

    Big difference between early Roth — and recent Roth — He shoulda quit while he was ahead — WAY ahead!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 19, 2011 7:31 pm

      I could not agree more.

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