Sunday, May 22, 2011

Philip Roth and The Man Booker Judging

As has been widely discussed, last week Philip Roth won the Man Booker International Prize (which might as well be called, "For Those Who Haven't Won Nobels." This choice would have been widely accepted, even perhaps expected, if one of the judges had not resigned her position over the selection.

Carmen Callil decided to air her grievances publicly and spectacularly, with initial disparagement and now more considered remarks.

This is the stuff of good literary water-coolering ("It feels as if he is sitting on your face") and a fair glimpse of the politicking and subjectivity of such awards. To be honest, I tend not to find the back-room dealing of the judges interesting, though I do care about who wins these awards since they tend to provide the most publicity literature receives over the course of the year.

What strikes me know, though, is how little Callil's objection to Roth is about Roth himself: of her 828 words, less than a hundred of them are about Roth specifically. The rest are about the scope of the award and her displeasure about the process. I was anxious to see why Callil objected to Roth strongly, but instead all she said was this:

There are great moments in Roth's work. He is clever, harsh, comic, but his reach is narrow. Not in the Austen, Bellow or Updike sense, because they use a narrow canvas to convey the widest concepts and ideas. Roth digs brilliantly into himself, but little else is there. His self-involvement and self-regard restrict him as a novelist. And so he uses a big canvas to do small things, and yet his small things take up oceanic room. The more I read, the more tedious I found his work, the more I heard the swish of emperor's clothes. 
Hard to admire him, hard to see him on the long list, hard to award him this international prize.
If I understand this correctly, Callil's concern is the narrowness of Roth's writerly interest, mainly that that interest is principally "himself" and that self holds little interest to Callil. 

Analyzing Callil's argument is difficult here because she states a preference and doesn't use much in the way of evidence. Still, there are a couple of interesting points here. 

First, the number of metaphors she uses to describe her dissatisfaction is fascinating: "reach," "narrow," "canvas," "digs," "oceanic," and "swish of emperor's clothes." There is a certain cognitive dissonance here (how does one dig into an ocean), but at its core, Callil's complaint is about scope. In her estimation, Roth's artistic vision is limited and that to which it is limited is of little interest to her. 

That Callil finds the fact that Roth's greatest subject is Roth tiresome is of course her prerogative, but I wonder if she isn't missing the point of Roth's self-examination, and in doing so misses reason he is the most decorated and widely read living writer of American literary fiction. Roth's signature achievement is not spectacular understanding, but a consistent, experimental, literary investigation of the 20th century's central artistic theme: the problem of the self. 

Roth's consternation over the self leads him to a staggering display of artistic virtuosity, encompassing nearly the whole array of mid-to-late 20th Century generic forms. Incendiary debut? Goodbye, Columbus. Shocking coming-of-age novel? Portnoy's Complaint. Confessional literature? The Zuckerman Trilogy. Speculative fiction? The Plot Against America. Magical Realism? The Ghost Writer. Postmodernism? Operation Shylock. Satire? The Great American Novel. Domestic drama? American Pastoral. Carnivalesque? Sabbath's Theater. And the list could go on. 

Roth's "limited" vision is the vision of kaleidoscope--fragmented, combinatorial, various, and beautiful. Callil's privileging of subject ignores the bounty of Roth's formal mastery. To dismiss him for only writing about himself would be like dismissing Monet for only painting plants. 

Buy books mentioned in this post (or anything else, actually) using the below links, and The Reading Ape gets a small referral fee to defray our nominal operating costs.


  1. I feel that Roth writing about himself is just adding to the canon of white men's writing and experience, you know? I felt Callil bowing out was highlighting the fact that we need to realize that there are more experiences out there than this one. But it is this one that we keep honoring. As an international prize why are we still only acknowledging the white western / American experience?

  2. I did not necessarily love the one Philip Roth I have read (Nemesis), but I can recognize good writing when I see it, and Roth is a _good_ writer. The fact that a judge can't divorce subject from ability and impact of work is more a fault of the judge and less of the writer.

  3. Amy-
    If this was Calill's objection, the I wish she would have said as much. As I said, her critique of Roth's work itself is fair enough, though short-sighted, in my opinion.

    That her resignation was a protest against giving the award to a white man doesn't fit with her comments. She wrote that any of the other finalists would have been a better choice---among those finalists were three other white men who write in English.

    Also, this award, the Man Book International, has never been awarded to a white man, as problematic as equating "jewish-american" is with whiteness. I agree that a plurality of literary voices should be featured, but there doesn't seem to be a problem with this in this particular commendation.

    I would agree, though readily admit that she has the right as a judge to disagree with the outcome. The resignation and the thinness of her reasons though were a disappointment.

  4. Sorry it's not so much that he is a white male but it is that he only writes about the white male experience - which not all white males do of course. So that his books deal only with himself to me means he doesn't look outside of that one line of existence. And I'm not saying those books aren't sometimes really good either, but rather that I think we need more variety. I don't know how to state my point clearly :)

  5. That you for this. I hope that your comments make the news because they seem well thought-out and non-emotional. Unlike Ms. Calill's comments. I wonder who she wanted to win? "If I don't get my choice, I'll take my ball and go home!"

  6. Thanks for posting on this. Reading a few new sentences from the judge on Roth doesn't clarify much why she's withdrawing; as you write, his focus may be "narrow" in some people's views, but he's hardly doing the same thing or in the same way in each novel. And I'd argue with Amy that there is a pretty significant difference between books exploring the white male experience and the Jewish male experience - the two have moments of intersection, but they're far from the same thing.

    -- Ellen

  7. Amy-
    Again, that's a conversation worth having, but not what her criticism was about. It's not that he was a white male that she objected to, it's that she didn't like the self into which he was diving.

    It's weird, she basically said anyone else on the list. Her initial comments were quite a bit more hostile than her editorial, so I do wonder if there is something here I don't understand.

    Coincidentally, the fraught position of American Jews is a central theme in his work, so it's interesting that this identity confusion should crop up even in discussions Roth outside of the books themselves.

  8. I'd say 'Plot Against America' is alternate history, rather than magical realism (there isn't any magic, or fantasy element alongside the different version of history presented, so to me it sits in the alt-history branch of spec fic).

    I can see your point about Roth's exploration of the self and I think Callil first remarks were easily knocked down, probably because they were initial and hurried (there are many writers who write about the same thing over and over to achieve deeper insight). I think Erica Wagner made the point though that her resignation has been interpreted as an act of feminist protest, because that's what people want to believe (damn feminists letting their politics get in the way of really great literature winning a prize) rather than anything she had said and...that kind of shows you what I object to about the whole Roth 'is he the greatest writer ever' debate. It's not so much Roth himself (although I find it hard to get excited about reading his work and while 'Plot Against America' was very effective in its politics it bored me so hard artistically in places) it's the way the Roth support structure that's built up and they way they interprets the reactions of those who don't like his work (not you, this piece was very balanced).