Monday, 23 May 2011

Philip Roth Wins the 2011 Man Booker International Prize

American novelist Philip Roth has been awarded the biennial international 2011 Booker Prize. The septuagenarian Roth joins the ranks of Ismail Kadre, Chinua Achebe, and Alice Munro who received this prize, which began its life in 2005.

Unlike the Man Booker Prize which is awarded every year to the best novel (in view of the panel of judges) in a given year, the International Booker rewards the overall achievement of the writer and the influence on writers and readers world-wide.

This year, there were 13 writers short-listed, including Marylinne Robinson, Rohinton Mistry, Philip Pullman, and Anne Tyler. The British Spy-story writer John le Carre requested his name to be withdrawn from the short-list. In a statement that was published on the award’s web-site, le Carre declared:

‘I am enormously flattered to be named as a finalist of 2011 Man Booker International Prize.  However I do not compete for literary prizes and have therefore asked for my name to be withdrawn.’

Which should be read as:

‘I am an internationally successful writer who has sold millions of copies world-wide, and I do not need the prop of your poxy award.’

Rick Gekoski, a seller of rare books, writer and Chair of the Man Booker International Prize 2011 judges, commented in response:
‘John le Carré's name will, of course, remain on the list. We are disappointed that he wants to withdraw from further consideration because we are great admirers of his work.’
Leave the man alone, Gekoski. What part of le Carre’s statement did seem to you like he gives a shit about the prize?
The judges’ panel, which included South African novelist Justin Cartwright and the founder of the Virago Press Carmen Callil, decided to keep le Carre’s name on the short-list. And did not to award him the prize. As I see it, the judges decided to ignore le Carre’s wishes because they admire him so much, but not enough to award him the prize. That is a bit insulting, don’t you think, although I should hazard a guess that John le Carre’s indifference towards the award extends to the decision-making process of the judges.

Awarding the prize to the mega-prolific Philip Roth, however, has triggered a controversy of sorts. Carmen Callil is doing what she does best: stir storms in tea-cups. Callil was not happy that Roth was chosen as the winner. Callil does not rate Roth as a writer. ‘He goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book,’ Callil was reported as saying in some broadsheets.
Left to her Callil would not have even long-listed Roth, let alone short-listing him. Awarding him the prize (£ 60,000) was beyond pale. She could not be a party to the decision.
So what did Callil do? She ‘retired’ from the panel and on the day the award was announced went public with her carping. She followed this up with a whining article in the Guardian (in which she hissed and spitted like that possessed girl in the Exorcist). Below a photograph which showed her staring at the world with a murderous glint in her eyes, like an aging hippo hounded out of a deliciously muddy puddle, Callil outlined her objections to Roth’s choice. These, in no particular order, were as follows:
(1)There are loads of writers writing excellent fiction in non-English languages, who ought to be recognized. Why give the award to yet another English language writer and a North American too. (She may as well have added Jewish.) (2) There were 12 other writers short-listed, any one of whom would have acceptable to her (even though one of them, John le Carre, had made it clear that he would rather have his teeth extracted without anesthesia (by a dentist who’s had lots of onions for lunch) than be short-listed for the prize); couldn’t the two other judges show some regard for Callil’s delicate sensibilities and agree on someone other than Roth? (Like who? Marilynne Robinson, who has written a grand total of three novels (two of which are unreadable) in a career spanning thirty years?) (3) The other two judges were not being fair. If she could not have her first choice (anyone other than Roth) crowned as the winner, neither should they have been allowed to have their first choice (Roth). There should have been a compromise and the ‘second choice’, acceptable to all the judges, should have been chosen. (I think the woman is being too clever by half: her  ‘second choice’  in effect would have been the ‘first choice’, seeing as ‘any other [than Roth] of the 13 short-listed authors would have been acceptable’ to her. (4) Finally, there was some animadversion of Roth’s fiction—Roth digs brilliantly into himself but there is little else, Roth uses a large canvas to do small things, unlike Jane Austen who apparently used a narrow canvas to portray big concepts (it’s a shame the prize can be awarded only to living authors) etcetera etcetera.  
Now I accept that I won’t be able to point out good fiction out of an identity parade, but none of the reasons proffered by Callil, save one, strikes me as literary.
The only literary point (the fourth one) is, like, her view, and, while she is entitled to hold her views, she can’t throw a tantrum when the world does not take notice of it. And what exactly is the point? Roth, according to another comment attributed to Callil, writes about the same thing (presumably post-war American Jewish male) again and again, in books after books.  Most writers, including great writers, do that in my view. Howard Jacobson, the winner of 2010 Man Booker Prize, writes again and again about middle aged randy Jewish men who are serial philanderers; Kingsley Amis wrote again and again about randy, middle aged, alcoholic English men who wished to f**k anything that moved; Anita Brookner writes again and again about middle aged, unfulfilled spinsters; V.S. Naipaul (barring the first three comic novels) writes again and again about the statelessness of a perpetual outsider; Carol Shields wrote again and again about middle class Canadian men and women; and Martin Amis writes again and again about nothing in particular. The question I ask is whether what they write is worth reading, whether it captivates me.
The long and short of the brouhaha Callil has created is: she does not like Roth as a writer; she has reasons not to like him which in her view are perfectly legitimate; she is pissed off that the other two judges ignored her views because they think Philip Roth is great; therefore she has thrown hissy fit.  I won’t rule out an underlying desire to grab a bit of newspaper publicity (and Guardian is always obliging). She could have quietly withdrawn and kept her reasons to herself, having the magnanimity to accept that although she can’t see the point of Roth many others, including her co-judges (and one of them a seller of rare books, too), can, instead of giving out statements insulting Roth and publishing an article which might make people wonder whether she isn’t a bit childish (and bursting with clichés). But then some people seek out publicity like a pig roots for truffles.
Callil’s accusations at her fellow judges sound like playground politics. Essentially she is saying, ‘If I can’t have it my way, others can’t, either.’ What seems clear is that the other two judges were firmly of the view that Roth was the most deserving winner out of the short-listed 13. Two out of three judges chose Roth, end of story; majority rules. Whichever democratic system you choose—first past the post or alternative vote—Roth was the winner. Callil should have gracefully accepted that she was not able to get round either of the co-judges to her point of view (Roth is a crap writer), but I suspect Callil won’t recognize graciousness if it poked her in the eye.
Whether Philip Roth is a great writer is almost beside the point. If you take a straw poll of people on the streets of London, 80% won’t have heard of either Roth or the International Booker. Of those who have heard of either or both, some will say he is a great writer, some won’t. These are subjective views and we are never going to have a consensus about it. I remember reading the reaction of Arundhati Roy when she won the 1997 Booker for her debut novel The God of Small Things. Roy remarked that she was lucky, as, had there been another panel, she might not have even been shortlisted.  That is the point: in the opinion of the majority of the judges on the panel for 2011 International Booker Roth is a worthy winner.
Callil was quoted in one broadsheet that in her view no one would read Roth in 20 years’ time, or something to that effect. I look at it this way. In the last two years I have read four books of Roth, one of which was Portnoy’s Complaint, first published more than forty years ago. Such peevish comments say more about the commentator than the objects of their comments. Ten years ago Paul Theroux launched a scathing attack (yet again) on V.S. Naipaul after Naipaul was awarded the Nobel. Naipaul, Theroux declared petulantly, was like John Galsworthy: considered great (undeservingly) in his time but forgotten by the world with the passage of time, because he did not write anything of lasting value. Callil’s prophesies are as off the mark as Theroux’s prophesies were then.
Since world is not driven entirely by pique, there is a fair chance that people will be reading Philip Roth in twenty years. 
PS: I have no idea why the font size has changed one third of the way through the posting. Blame Blogspot.