Novelist Philip Roth caused a stir by winning the Booker International Prize. Good for him: Literature should provoke strong feelings. One of the three judges, Carmen Callil, quit the committee because of the decision to recognize Roth’s “achievement in fiction” over the course of his long career.
Callil made plain her strong dislike of Roth. “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,” she said, according to The Guardian. (The others who made the shortlist for the biennial award were Philip Pullman, Anne Tyler and Marilynne Robinson.) Callil also complained that the author of Portnoy’s Complaint, The Counterlife and The Human Stain, among many others, “goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.” She predicted that no one would be reading his work in twenty years.
It takes either an unusual confidence that the world will come around to your point of view or a not so unusual foolishness (unless those amount to the same thing) to declare that someone’s work will not endure. Herman Melville may have been forgotten during his life time, but his books did not end up neglected. It doesn’t take much effort to think of other celebrated writers who regularly return to “the same subject” in their books, which makes that criticism look something less than incisive.
All the same, if Callil doesn’t enjoy Roth’s writing, fine. But as Macy Halford at The New Yorker’s Book Bench points out, it is ridiculous to agree to join a judging panel but quit in a fit when the majority doesn’t vote your way.
Unfortunately, the hullabaloo may not have only to do with strictly literary concerns. As Halford also notes, Callil founded Virago Press, publisher of Roth’s ex-wife Claire Bloom’s memoir of their unsatisfying marriage. Perhaps Callil feels some allegiance to Bloom. Then again, she would seem to have reason to hope people will still read Roth in 2031. After all, it seems safe to speculate that interest in Bloom’s Leaving a Doll’s House largely depends on curiosity about Roth.
I confess that I want people to keep reading Roth for my own reasons. I write about him in an essay forthcoming in Philip Roth Studies, and a different but not wholly unrelated piece appears in my collection of pugilistic literary essays, Fighters & Writers.
It’s healthy for readers to argue over writing – if they argue intelligently.