What is Carmen Callil's real complaint with Philip Roth: that his work is tedious or that it is misogynistic? Jennifer Szalai considers the dust-up over a certain book prize ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Under more ordinary circumstances, last week’s announcement that Philip Roth had won the Man Booker International prize would have been met with polite indifference, as befitting the non-news of a renowned author being granted a literary award. That Mr Roth was a serious contender seemed to catch nobody by surprise—except, perhaps, Carmen Callil (pictured), one of the three judges, who very publicly quit after the announcement of the winner was made. Ms Callil’s initial comments were what set a minor controversy in motion, especially her rather bold statement that she did not “rate him as a writer at all.” She also prompted a few titters when she explained her exasperation and impatience with Mr Roth’s preoccupations by using a Rothian image if there ever was one: “It's as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe.”
Ms Callil may or may not have been referring to an actual episode in “The Dying Animal”, one of the more regrettable volumes in Mr Roth’s capacious oeuvre. But she has since published an altogether measured explanation for her actions in this weekend’s Guardian Review. She gives a nod to the qualities of Mr Roth’s work she can bring herself to admire: “He is clever, harsh, comic… he digs brilliantly into himself.” But then she finds “his reach is narrow… His self-involvement and self-regard restrict him as a novelist.” She had hoped the prize would “celebrate the work of translation and of translators who so widen our understanding of other countries, other cultures,” instead of going to “yet another North American writer.” Fair enough. Whether or not one agrees with her opinions, she is entitled to act on them. Still, Ms Callil admits that she might have acted too soon. She quit the panel without asking “for a reassessment and full discussion of each of the other finalists.” She realises, in retrospect, that she could and should have done so. (Note: The Economist's literary editor has been an administrator of the Man Booker International prize since 2005.)
Until Ms Callil’s essay was published, several commentators surmised that her feminism must have rendered her insensate to the pleasures of Mr Roth’s work. (In the 1970s Ms Callil founded Virago Press, which continues to publish work exclusively by women.) Robert McCrum, writing in the Guardian last week, expressed it most plainly: “Her expertise is as an ebullient and pioneering feminist publisher from the 1970s. It's hardly a surprise that she should find herself unresponsive to Roth's lifelong subject: the adventures of the ordinary sexual (American) man.” Here Mr McCrum seems to take much for granted—namely, that a feminist is bound to be “unresponsive” to the subject of male sexuality. In other words, where Mr Roth’s protagonists pursue sex with a relentlessness marked by extreme enthusiasm (and, lately, extreme desperation), feminists reflexively take offense and simply cannot get past their prudish high dudgeon. (The undersexed feminist prude is the mirror image of the liberated, loose woman of social-conservative lore; it seems that feminists, when it comes to sex, are always having too much of it or too little.) Ms Callil was quick to deflect such arguments as “an ad feminam attack from the boys,” saying that she “never thought of feminism for one second” when considering Mr Roth’s work. But her pretense to obliviousness—that she truly “had no idea that his work was objected to because he is seen as a misogynist”—comes across as mildly disingenuous from, yes, a feminist publisher. To claim that her own reading of Mr Roth has nothing to do with her feminism is one thing; to claim that she was utterly unaware of how some other feminists view his work is another thing entirely.
The misogyny charge against Mr Roth has been levelled many times before, most convincingly by Vivian Gornick, who wrote an essay for Harper’s Magazine that described his cruel treatment of his female characters as “lava pouring forth from a volcano.” Ms Gornick, however, has clearly read everything that Mr Roth wrote; she criticises his work, but she also appreciates the “savaging brilliance” of it. So it is curious how several of Mr Roth’s defenders during this recent flap presume that feminists are counselling women to boycott his books. The Observer ran a lengthy dialogue this weekend between William Skidelsky and Alex Clark, both of whom took pains to argue that women should read Mr Roth, without an example of anyone who posited otherwise. The poor straw-woman got an especially severe pummelling from Ms Clark: “I really think it would be a shame if women readers were to miss out on that to avoid running the risk of being offended or riled. Women are not children and we don't need to be protected from provocative views!” Indeed, and nothing Ms Callil has said would indicate that she disagrees.
To argue that Mr Roth’s fixations have become “tedious”, as Ms Callil does, is rather the opposite of arguing they exert a malevolent power. Besides which, Mr Roth is an established name who will continue to be read in the English-speaking world, by men and by women, regardless of what might have happened with the Man Booker prize. The same probably cannot be said for several of the other finalists, such as Wang Anyi and Dacia Maraini, whose names are associated with neither noisy controversy nor widespread recognition.
Jennifer Szalai, formerly a senior editor of Harper's Magazine, lives and writes in Brooklyn. Picture credit: Felix Clay