Saturday, May 21, 2011

Philip Roth & The Man Booker International Prize

Philip Roth won the Man Booker International Prize on Wednesday. 

The Man Booker International Prize is a newish, Nobelish prize, and we were glad he won.   Founded in 2005, it is awarded only every two years: 60,000 pounds.  A major award.

This year, however, there is a hitch.  One of the three judges, Carmen Callil, founder of Virago Books, ran like a Greek tragedy heroine into the spotlight.  She told the Guardian she had quit the panel because she strongly disapproved of giving the award to Roth.  It was a 2-1 decision. She dislikes his books and said he "“goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every book."

"Is the Man Booker International a made-up prize?"  my husband asked.  

"No, it's like the Booker, only everybody qualifies!" He does know the Booker Prize.   "She says Roth is 'narrow.'"

In an essay in today's Guardian, Callil wrote that the prize should not have gone to a North American because Alice Munro won it last year--and, by the way, she said Munro deserved it. She said the prize should honor a writer in translation and she had "researched the writers of China, Africa, India, Pakistan, the Arab World, Sri Lanka, the Caribbean and more."  

See what I mean?  Nobelish.

In light of the fact that she hates Roth I am stunned that a compromise was not made, but her argument about North America is weak.  It is nonsense to talk about North America as one culture and to group Canadian and American literature together.  They are different.

She says her dislike of Roth is not a feminist distaste, but a dislike of his themes:

"There are great moments in Roth's work. He is clever, harsh, comic, but his reach is narrow. Not in the Austen, Bellow or Updike sense, because they use a narrow canvas to convey the widest concepts and ideas. Roth digs brilliantly into himself, but little else is there."

I respect her opinion of Roth, but disagree.   American Pastoral is one of the great novels of the 20th century, or was last time I looked.  A few years ago when I strove to read more male writers, I was equally impressed by one of Roth's earlier novels,  Letting Go.

I don't understand how three judges could not have compromised.  All for one and one for all!  Right? 

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