With apologies for being a bit late on the draw here, last week Philip Roth was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for 2011. The £60,000 prize—that’s a little under $100,000—is awarded every other year for significant achievement in fiction writing, either originally in English or widely translated. Recent winners include Ismail Kadaré (2005), Chinua Achebe (2007) and Alice Munro (2009). While Roth was up against such popular favorites as Marilynne Robinson, Rohinton Mistry, Anne Tyler, Philip Pullman, James Kelman, and John le Carré—who declined his nomination but was listed all along anyway–he pulled a fair amount of weight just by virtue of his oeuvre. At 78, he’s the last of the Old Guard of working-class American fiction that included Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud. And while his books are getting shorter, smaller, and in my opinion flimsier, he still has a considerable body of work behind him.
Still, the decision was obviously not a slam dunk. Judge Carmen Callil walked off the three-person panel in protest of Roth’s win, saying:
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.
In her statement to the Guardian, she also cited a wish for the prize to be more international in scope—although I’m guessing she wouldn’t have objected so strenuously to Robinson or Tyler winning. Callil was the founder of the feminist Virago Press, which—coincidentally or not—published Leaving a Doll’s House, a memoir by Roth’s ex-wife Claire Bloom in which he did not exactly come off well. Whether or not that has any bearing on Callil’s dislike of Roth, she also bristled at having to compromise with the other two judges, rare book dealer and writer Rick Gekoski and novelist Justin Cartwright. Three is an admittedly tough number to work with, and the choice obviously lay heavily across lines of personal taste and values. Eventually, says Callil,
I spoke to Justin and said I thought I should give in, if I didn’t have to have anything to do with the winner. So I said I didn’t want my name attached to it, and retired. You can’t be asked to judge, and then not judge.
Still, you can’t have a contest without contention, and I think it’s a good world where people feel strongly enough about literature, one way or the other, to walk out of the room in front of everyone. I think Roth was a fine choice, especially in terms of lifetime achievement, but it also makes me happy to know that the process behind these awards isn’t completely bloodless yet.