Judge withdraws over Philip Roth's Booker win
Carmen Callil retires from panel after decision to give award to writer whose work she considers a case of 'Emperor's clothes'
Author and publisher Carmen Callil has withdrawn from the judging panel of the Man Booker International prize over its decision to honour Philip Roth with the £60,000 award.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 author, Callil said that "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".
One of three judges on the panel for the literary award, alongside rare book dealer and author Rick Gekoski, who acted as chair, and novelist Justin Cartwright, this morning Callil revealed that, after the decision was made to give the prize to Roth from a shortlist which also featured Philip Pullman, Anne Tyler and Marilynne Robinson, she decided to retire from the panel.
"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."
Gekoski, speaking from the Sydney Writers' festival, said that the decision to give the prize to Roth had been reached "slowly and with a great deal of discussion and a considerable amount of argument".
"Three is a very dangerous number, a hard number to come to a decision. Two people came in very, very strongly supporting one writer, and one not," he said. "Literary prizes are generally pretty contentious [and] you have to guard against satisfying the judges rather than picking the right author. Saying let's compromise – nobody wants [this author] to win but we can live with it ... Well, my view is you want to get passionate support for someone."
All three judges, said Gekoski, "felt very, very strongly about the reading, about the process, about who should win". "We have read our guts out for the last 18 months, so to do that and not come up with someone you can care about is a painful thing and not a desirable thing. I entirely understand that," he said. But, he went on, in a field that included Roth, "tell me who else we could have picked".
"In 1959 he writes Goodbye, Columbus and it's a masterpiece, magnificent. Fifty-one years later he's 78 years old and he writes Nemesis and it is so wonderful, such a terrific novel ... Tell me one other writer who 50 years apart writes masterpieces," Gekoski said. "If you look at the trajectory of the average novel writer, there is a learning period, then a period of high achievement, then the talent runs out and in middle age they start slowly to decline. 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. He was 65-70 years old, what the hell's he doing writing that well?"
In her Guardian Review column, Callil also writes of her disappointment that the prize failed to celebrate writers in translation – the shortlist also included the Chinese authors Wang Anyi and Su Tong, the Spanish Juan Goytisolo, Italian Dacia Maraini and Lebanese Amin Maalouf – honouring instead "yet another North American writer".
"Obviously [writers in translation] have a disadvantage and there's no sense pretending they don't, of being read in translation," said Gekoski. "They are disenfranchised in that way, [but] ask me who my favourite writers are and it's Flaubert and Dostoyevsky – if the quality's there, it will shine through."
The prize in his view, though, is "not about who's the best: I think that's fatuous". Instead, it's about honouring "achievement in fiction".
"Are we saying Philip Roth is the best living novelist in the world? I don't know I want to say that. But he is the one we have chosen to honour and there are very good reasons for that," he said.
Judge withdraws over Philip Roth's Booker win | Books | guardian.co.uk