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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: May 18, 2011 @ 3:25 pm

    Grapes of Roth – Booker judge resigns

    Laurence Mackin

    There is Booker blood on the literary dancefloor, after the resignation of one of the International prize judges. Carmen Callil has withdrawn from the panel in protest over the decision to give the £60,000 prize to Philip Roth, telling the Guardian that “he goes on and on and on about the same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”.

    Don’t hold back Carmen, tell us exactly what you think. Alright then: “I don’t rate him as a writer at all. [Pow] I made it clear that I wouldn’t have put him on the longlist, so I was amazed when he stayed there [Punch] … Roth goes to the core of [the other judges’] beings. But he certainly doesn’t go to the core of mine [Slap] … Emperor’s clothes: in 20 years’ time will anyone read him? [Kerblamo!]”

    Literary lord above.

    Callil’s decision is fascinating for lots of reasons. You can argue long and hard for Roth’s abilities (and her two fellow judges for the prize, Rick Gekoski and Justin Cartwright, have done just that), but regardless of the author involved, you have to admire Callil for being so forthright in her views. People are terrific at dismissing literary heavyweights in private, but they rarely let their true feelings show in public.

    I’m a huge fan of John Banville, for example, but I know plenty of people who are baffled by his success. VS Naipaul has never done much for me and I find Salman Rushdie’s writing too much like hard work. I’ve had more arguments about Ernest Hemingway than I can remember (I’ll defend his books to the bitter, untimely end, in the lonely, pouring rain), and you only have to let slip the words Martin Amis to hear the knives being unsheathed.

    All a matter of taste then? Certainly, but there is nothing like courage in the conviction to make the arguments a lot spicier, especially in the notoriously bitchy world of literature.

    What’s also interesting is the decision to award the prize anyway. Three people are on this particular panel, two of whom were strong supporters of Roth winning, and one of whom was strongly against – Roth gets the prize, so majority wins over consensus.

    It would probably be impossible to get even three people to agree on an outright winner, but it’s odd to think that someone who one of the judges bitterly opposed could still win (again, this is not a judgment on Roth’s work, but rather on the mechanics of how the decision is reached). What it also reveals it that just because you are on a judging panel, doesn’t mean your favourite author/band/film will win – the best you can hope for is that you will strongly like the winner, and you can pretty much forget about them being your favourite.

    For Callil, not even this was the case.

    • Leo Regan says:

      Will it sell his books? For those who find him a good read, it is publicity and may prod them to purchase. For those who have decided he is not to their taste, perhaps curiousity, more likely confirmation of their attitude. However, such a display lacks decorum and sets a precedent. Who is she?

    • Laurence Mackin says:

      Leo – It will sell him piles and piles of books, I would imagine. Not that someone of Roth’s stature is relying on a boost from prize-related sales to pay the bills.

      I don’t think it lacks decorum. She was hired as a judge; she disagreed with the verdict; she made her feelings (very) public. You could argue with her language, but I’m glad she is willing to speak up. As for her CV, she is an author and founder of Virago Press and has huge experience as a judge on literary awards. I believe she will have a piece on this weekend’s Guardian expanding on her reasons; I’d be interested to know if she still got paid for her work. She has “resigned in protest” but the job has already been done.

    • Brian says:

      I’ll read that Guardian piece with interest as I have some reservations with Roth though I consider him one of my favorite current writers at the same time. At the level of the sentence, there’s no better writer but if you were to read some of his most highly rated books (American Pastoral and Human Stain), you can come up with some fairly empty characterisations. Characters resembling little more than easily debunked ideologies are not infrequent. It tends to undermine the impact of the magnificent subtlety of his writing to the point where you think that, just maybe, he does publish too frequently.

      That said, I’m glad that he got the award. I haven’t read Nemesis yet but if it’s much better, as the reviews all suggest, than the superb “Everyman” than I’ll be happy. Another recommendation would be “Ghost Writer” which seems to be the halfway meeting between the comedy of “Portnoy’s Complaint” and his later novels. The high farce of the writer’s situation in the ending is hilarious. Any Roth recommendations?


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