Carmen Callil, the judge who resigned from the Man Booker International Prize committee after the other judges on the three-person panel remained adamant about their decision to award the prestigious prize for “achievement in fiction” to Philip Roth, is either unqualified to judge fiction or she’s a liar. Those are the only two reasonable conclusions one can come to after Callil, who founded the feminist Virago Press in 1973, proffered a series of fumbling explanations for why she couldn’t lend her name to the presentation of a lifetime achievement award to a writer who has won the Pulitzer Prize (for American Pastoral), the National Book Award (twice, for Goodbye, Columbus and Sabbath’s Theater) and the PEN/Faulkner award (three times, for Operation Shylock, The Human Stain, and Everyman).
In an literary assessment that raised quite a few eyebrows, the 72-year-old Callil said of Roth: “I don’t rate him as a writer at all. I made it clear that I wouldn’t have put him on the long list (of writers under consideration for the award), so I was amazed when he stayed there. He was the only one I didn’t admire—all the others were fine.”
The notion that Philip Roth doesn’t rate “as a writer at all” is questionable at best. And her added assertion that the candidacy of Roth, the writer most often discussed as the next American most likely to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, “came out like a thunderbolt, and I was too surprised” makes you question what periodicals Callil has been reading for the last half century.
And yet more troubling than her opinion of Roth’s writing ability or her understanding of thunderbolts is her coy, disingenuous statement that she had no idea that Roth’s oeuvre has long been unpopular among many feminists. Alison Flood wrote in The Guardian,
Although Roth’s writing—always from the male perspective, often explicitly about sex—is widely perceived as containing a broad streak of misogyny, Callil told the Guardian her dislike of the author was based on what she sees as his literary shortcomings. “Feminism had absolutely nothing to do with my criticism of Philip Roth’s work, or with my retirement from the judging panel,” she said.
“This kerfuffle is an ad feminam attack from the boys and, of course, the odd girl, but mainly it’s a boyzones attack. Take Robert McCrum, for instance, who certainly has his critics, but they, unlike him, do not have instant access to the media. Yet he feels free to badmouth me as a human being, rather than discuss the ideas and issues involved.” Callil “never thought of feminism for one second” when she was considering Roth’s work. “I may have founded Virago 40 years ago but I’m a creature of books, of writing,” she said. “It never occurred to me and it comes as a surprise to me. I’d no idea—and I’m nearly 73 for goodness sake—I had no idea that his work was objected to because he is seen as a misogynist.
Oh, really? The publisher of a feminist press—one that touts itself as “the largest women’s imprint in the world— had no idea that the most decorated living American writer has been criticized in some circles for misogynistic writing? Oh, and let’s not forget to mention this factoid: Virago Press published the memoir of Philip Roth’s ex-wife, actress Claire Bloom, in which Bloom described Roth as a self-absorbed cad.
Here’s Callil’s attempt at a cohesive explanation for why she couldn’t honor Philip Roth with the Man Booker International Award. Notice she doesn’t feel it’s necessary to mention the publication of Bloom’s memoir, and she doesn’t revisit her comments about not knowing Roth is perceived as a misogynist by some.
I don’t understand why people have reservations about admitting their literary prejudices. There’s a difference between open-mindedness and open-endedness. At a certain point you have to acknowledge what you like and what you dislike, and stop making excuses (or lying) about those choices.
I consider myself well-read, with most of my focus on literary novels. But you know what percentage of those books were written by women? Probably 20 percent, at most. In the last two years I’ve read and enjoyed works by Laila Lalami, Anne Tyler, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood. And I doubt I’ll ever read short stories that eclipse the works of Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy male writers much more than female writers, largely because I feel more attuned to the worlds they describe and the concerns they encounter. This, I’m confident in saying, is how the majority of devout readers approach fiction, both men and women. To pretend otherwise is just disingenuous.