As you’ve probably heard, “Super” Booker judge Carmen Callil resigned from the three-person jury after the latest of the Super Bookers went to Philip Roth. Her public remarks on the issue are as follows:
“I don’t rate him as a writer at all. 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,” said Callil, who will explain why she believes Roth is not a worthy winner in an outspoken column in the Guardian Review on Saturday 21 May. “Roth goes to the core of their [Cartwright 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?”
Founder of the feminist publishing house Virago, Callil is also the author of Bad Faith, a history of Vichy France. “I’ve judged many prizes before and I’ve rarely had my own favourite – it’s always a question of ‘I think X is a genius and you don’t, so let’s go for Y’. That didn’t happen,” she said. “We should have discussed everything more, but Philip Roth came out like a thunderbolt, and I was too surprised. We took a couple of days to brood, and then 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.”
She also remarked, “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.”
I’m not the biggest Roth partisan in the world, and I’ll leave it to others to argue the merits of his work, but even my decidedly cursory knowledge of his novels indicates that charges of “emperor’s clothes” and writing the same novel over and over are ridiculous. I’ll readily agree that at this point his oeuvre is puffed up with a lot of novels that won’t last, but he has given us a good 5 to 10 solid-to-stellar novels.
That’s no mean achievement. I have no idea if it’s worthy of a Super Booker–or even what exactly is the criteria of being worthy of a Super Booker–but I would argue that resigning over Roth’s selection for one is very poor form. Most reasonable people would agree that he’s in the conversation for leading novelists worldwide (he always lists at good odds on the Nobel shortlist), so this quite clearly comes off as sour grapes.