Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Philip Roth vs. Carmen Callil (Victory, Roth)

I am happy to hear that Philip Roth has won the 2011 Man Booker International award and the cash prize that comes with it (something close to $100,000). The Man Booker International is awarded to an author for his fiction body of work and, with a full half-century of successful writing already under his belt, Roth’s work certainly can compete on equal footing with anyone writing today. I would have been happy for any of the others on the award short list - especially Anne Tyler - if they had won, but I believe that the judges were correct in choosing Roth for this honor.

Roth’s first book, the highly acclaimed Goodbye Columbus, was published in 1959, his most recent novel, Nemesis, 51 years later in 2010. All told, Roth has written some 31 novels and has won numerous prizes before this one, including the Pulitzer for 1998’s American Pastoral. I began reading Philip Roth around 1965 and I have been reading him regularly ever since. I have read close to 25 of the novels now, and strangely enough, the one I like the least is American Pastoral, one of the most highly acclaimed Roth novels of them all.

Also announced today is the vulgar display of poor sportsmanship of one of the award’s three judges, Carmen Callil, who actually had the gall to resign her position on the committee in protest of Mr. Roth’s win. Callil has written a column for the May 21 book section of the U.K.’s Guardian but that newspaper published some of her comments in today’s edition:
"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.” ... Emperor's clothes: in 20 years' time will anyone read him?"

"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."
Note the last sentence, quoted above: “You can't be asked to judge, and then not judge."

Is that not exactly what this woman has done? She wants nothing “to do with the winner,” so she has, in effect, withdrawn her vote in a childish snit, cheapening the impact of the award while making herself look a fool in the process. Not only does Callil lack the ability to recognize an impressive body of work when she sees one, she also lacks the graciousness to keep her mouth shut when a vote does not go her way.

Mr. Roth is not the loser here.  It is Ms. Callil who has, I believe, damaged whatever reputation she might have earlier had.

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately, the slur will stick and undermine the deserved victory for Roth.