Friday, May 20, 2011

The Noble Roth

News that Philip Roth had been awarded the Man Booker International Prize should have been the moment when the prize came of age. After all, the Nobel Prize has been continually and consistently reluctant in awarding its laureate to Americans. Rather than being a nice counterpoint to the Americanisation of the world, this has sometimes seems absurd: particularly when it comes to rewarding the novel, rather than other literary forms. The American novel is one of the wonders of the 20th century, and Philip Roth has been one of its finest proponents. Its rare to find, on reading his 90s masterpiece "American Pastoral", that you are reading an instant classic, a defining piece of work at the moment it comes out and, moreover, recognising it as such.

This new Booker prize, by rewarding Roth, was, one would have thought, being as uncontroversial as one could be - that was until one of the judges, Carmen Callil, disassociated herself from the award. That would have been fine - though surely an achievement award like this could have found one of its 13 writers that all the judges could agree on - but she went on 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."

Callil's opinions are her own, and all judging panels are going to have differences of them, but as Jonathan Jones pointed out, you can dislike his work, but you can't discount it, and by doing so, Callil comes across as silly. Stuart Evers has written an excellent blogpost on why Roth matters.

Defending herself, Callil writes that "to give this prize to yet another North American writer, when we had such great writers to choose from (the previous winner was the truly great Canadian writer, Alice Munro) suggests a limited vision, to say the least." Its an absurd argument, made the more so by her next line "this is not a matter of nationality." The rest of her argument, about the judging process, is perfectly valid, but her issue has been with Roth as a writer, and that is where any damage is done.

The domestic Booker has loved its spats, but the international award was surely trying to be Golden Globe to the Nobel's Oscars. Roth's chances of winning that are probably neither impaired or improved by this result, so mysterious are the workings of the Nobel committee - but as quixotic as the Nobel's choice has occasionally been, the Omerta of the judging committee might be something that Man Booker could learn from.

My brief thoughts on Roth and other links are here.

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