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Philip Roth wins the Booker Prize: Carmen’s Complaint

2011 May 23

Philip Roth is a good writer, but I wouldn’t want to shake hands with him.
– Jacqueline Susann, after reading Portnoy’s Complaint

Last week was a busy week in the book world. Sainsburys found itself anointed Bookseller of the Year to the chagrin of actual booksellers, the beleaguered Waterstones chain was saved from the asset-stripping abyss, and the Man Booker International Prize went to the veteran novelist Philip Roth. The last of these events made the biggest splash in the mainstream press, due to the consequent resignation in protest from the judging panel of Carmen Callil, the redoubtable founder of Virago Press, who – cue shock, horror, and the frantic ordering by booksellers of Roth’s backlist – disparaged Roth as a writer and disputed his worthiness to win.

“Roth digs brilliantly into himself, but little else is there. His self-involvement and self-regard restrict him as a novelist. And so he uses a big canvas to do small things, and yet his small things take up oceanic room. The more I read, the more tedious I found his work, the more I heard the swish of emperor’s clothes.”
Carmen Callil: Why I quit the Man Booker International panel

black and white photograph of Philip Roth, a caucasian middle aged man with dark eyes and receding grey hair. Image via Wikipedia Commons, shared under fair use/creative commonsThe criticism traditionally levelled at the Roth canon is that it mines a deep seam of misogyny. Although Callil was quick to quash any conjecture that her decision to dish Roth was influenced by feminist considerations, emphasising rather her concerns over awarding the prize to yet another North American novelist, this didn’t prevent the Telegraph reporting the affair under the headline ‘Feminist Judge Resigns…’, nor the majority of reports stressing her feminist credentials – or taint, perhaps – as head of Virago. Although Callil argues that her objections to Roth transcend his portrayal of women, much of the subsequent debate centred on the misogynist-or-not nature of Roth’s writing. Several female authors appear for the prosecution towards the end of this piece, while Linda Grant and Karen Stabiner have previously argued for a more nuanced perspective.

What interested me about the whole farrago, apart from the unbecoming glee with which several respondents leapt upon Callil’s admittedly oddly graphic description of her reaction to Roth’s writing (‘[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.‘), was how quickly comments to many of the pieces above dived into questions of whether Roth, with his ‘priapic’ preoccupations and thematic concentration on the ups and downs of male sexuality, was just too ‘male’ a writer for Callil’s tastes and, by extension, for those of female readers as a whole. Robert McCrum in the Observer wrote of Callil:

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.

Cover image for Roth's 2010 novel Nemesis - bright yellow background with title in white block lettering and blurry pale yellow circles

Female readers, and especially those with feminist sensibilities, so the argument seems to run, cannot be expected to appreciate or enjoy writing by men which concentrates on the male experience. Any criticisms they might raise of such writing, based on personal evaluations of its quality, technique, or aesthetic appeal, rather than its content, can therefore be instantly dismissed because, well, you were never going to like it anyway, were you. It’s not for you. Apart from anything else, this assertion is unsound: the articles above and elsewhere illustrate that many women do enjoy and appreciate writing by Roth and his contentious ilk – Updike, Amis, Easton Ellis – and it is no less the case that many male readers really don’t. Like the comparable myths about male and female approaches to music and music writing, the suggestion that writers, and readers, can be neatly divided on the basis of gender, and their responses to art explained away accordingly, is as bizarre and unhelpful as it is frustratingly persistent.

Rhian Jones also blogs at Velvet Coalmine

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Miranda permalink*
    May 23, 2011

    The gender essentialism is so ridiculous! What about writers like Mary Renault and Pat Barker and Rosemary Sutcliff? Barker won the Booker herself for a study of male relationships and wartime…

    … and that’s without even touching on slash and fandom, which certainly has an interest in men and masculinity which is complex and varied but shouldn’t be dismissed, I think, as a really interesting phenomenon of predominantly female interactions with “male” fictional spaces.

  2. Russell permalink
    May 23, 2011

    Is this perhaps an example of the essentialist arguments cutting both ways? I don’t wish to be too controversial, but as a man I’ve been told on a few occasions that I shouldn’t write about, think about, talk about, try to understand various experiences which are regarded as traditionally female, since there’s no way for me as a male to sympathise. Now, it seems some women are being told not to criticise Phillip Roth because they are not men. Both arguments seem like the worst kind of rubbish to me (creative excercise is about imagination, not experience)!

    • Miranda permalink*
      May 23, 2011


      It’s funny. Sebastian Faulks has an army of fawning fans who say things like “you write women SO believably!”

      Which may be true, but the implications of it – in both directions, as you say – make me cringe.

      Certainly there are modes of behaviour that are socially acceptable for men and for women, and a writer could observe these. But surely that takes one only halfway to a believable character anyway.

      • Russell permalink
        May 23, 2011

        I’ve often considered what makes a “believable” male or female character in the works of my favourite authors. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s realistic motivations and emotional responses regardless of gender; it’s how the characters deal with those that matters.

        But my opinion is probably invalid as I only read “trashy” fantasy books and never read anything “worthwhile” anyway.

        (those quote marks are there for a reason)

        • Miranda permalink*
          May 23, 2011

          The big irony for me when I read about the Booker row is that my mum is the biggest Roth fan I’ve ever met! She owns everything he’s done and raves about The Human Stain.

          Which doesn’t mean he isn’t very …mantastic. But Calill’s aren’t down to some innate womanly inability to enjoy him, that’s for sure. The suggestion in the press to that effect is bizarre.

  3. May 23, 2011

    I can’t think of Roth anymore without thinking of the start of a particular David Foster Wallace essay. “Mailer, Updike, Roth – the Great Male Narcissists who’ve dominated postwar American fiction are now in their senescence, and it must seem to them no coincidence that the prospect of their own deaths appears backlit by the approaching millennium and online predictions of the death of the novel as we know it. When a solipsist dies, after all, everything goes with him.”

    • Pet Jeffery permalink
      May 23, 2011

      On a gut feeling about these writers, I have read not a word of Roth, Updike or Mailer. I’m rather pleased to see my gut feeling confirmed.

    • Rhian Jones permalink
      May 23, 2011

      That’s one of the two essays linked in the last paragraph! DFW is an excellent critic.

  4. Pet Jeffery permalink
    May 23, 2011

    I wonder whether it might be profitable to consider gender essentialism in a wider context. There is also an age-based essentialism: the idea that books about children are exclusively for children.

    • Pet Jeffery permalink
      May 23, 2011

      The age-based essentialism is not without consequences.

      I read quite a lot of books widely viewed as “for children”. And have noticed that (with a few exceptions, such as the Alice books) publishers seem to have a lot less respect for the textual integrity of books they regard as “children’s” than those they perceive as aimed at an adult market. Old “children’s books”, when reprinted in recent years, are very often abridged, censored or otherwise changed.

      By “otherwise changed” I have in mind such things as updating pre-decimal money.

      Currently, I’m reading Noel Streatfeild books, and previous experience has led me to seek early editions of these, rather modern paperbacks. Just now, a slightly scruffy first edition (1944) of “Curtain Up” rests by my bedside.

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