The author and publisher Carmen Callil has withdrawn from the judging panel of the Man Booker International prize over its decision to honour Philip Roth with the £60?000 award.
Dismissing the Pulitzer prize-winning novelist, Callil said: “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.”
Callil was on the panel alongside bookdealer and author Rick Gekoski, who acted as chairperson, and the novelist Justin Cartwright.
“I don’t rate him as a writer at all,” she said. “I made it clear that I wouldn’t have put him on the longlist, so I was amazed when he stayed there. He was the only one I didn’t admire; all the others were fine.
“Roth goes to the core of their [Cartwright’s and Gekoski’s] beings, but he certainly doesn’t go to the core of mine. Emperor’s clothes. In 20 years’ time, will anyone read him?”
Callil, the founder of the feminist publisher Virago, said: “We should have discussed everything more, but Philip Roth came out like a thunderbolt and I was too surprised. 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.”
Gekoski said the decision had been reached “slowly and with a great deal of discussion and a considerable amount of argument. Two people came in very, very strongly supporting one writer and one not.”
But, he asked, in a field that included Roth, “tell me who else we could have picked? People say, why aren’t Martin [Amis] and Julian [Barnes] getting on the Booker prize shortlist? But that’s what happens in middle age. Philip Roth, though, gets better and better in middle age.
“In the 1990s he was almost incapable of not writing a masterpiece: The Human Stain, The Plot against America, I Married a Communist —”
Roth (78), a perennial contender for the Nobel prize for literature, was named winner of the Man Booker International prize at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, beating an eclectic shortlist that included Philip Pullman, Su Tong, Anne Tyler, Marilynne Robinson, David Malouf and a reluctant John le Carre, who had asked — unsuccessfully — for his name to be withdrawn from contention.
Roth thanked the judges for awarding him “this esteemed prize. One of the particular pleasures I’ve had as a writer is to have my work read internationally, despite all the heartaches of translation that that entails,” he said. “I hope the prize will bring me to the attention of readers around the world who are not familiar with my work.”
The biennial Man Booker International is awarded for a writer’s “achievement in fiction” and considers a body of work rather than a single book. —