A slap at Philip Roth – or a dig at American writers?

A Booker International Prize judge quits when the award goes to Philip Roth.

Eric Thayer/Reuters
Booker International judge Carmen Callil wrote that she would have liked to see the prize go to a nonnative English-language writer, rather than to “yet another American author.”

Is the Booker International Prize controversy a dig at American writers?

Sure, literary prizes often stir controversy, but this year’s Man Booker International Prize incited a firestorm when a judge withdrew from the judging panel over its decision to award American Philip Roth the fourth Man Booker Prize and $100,000 award.

Author and publisher Carmen Callil retired from the panel Wednesday following its announcement that Mr. Roth, cited as the “most decorated living American writer,” would be the prize’s fourth recipient.

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“I don’t rate him as a writer at all,” Ms. Callil told the Guardian newspaper. “I made it clear that I wouldn’t have put him on the longlist, so I was amazed when he stayed there.” She went on to say that Roth “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.”

Her comments immediately triggered an uproar, and added another chapter of controversy to a historical debate over international literary prizes and the merits (or demerits) of American writers.

Awarded every two years to a living author of any nationality for general achievement in fiction, either published in English or widely available in English translation, the Man Booker International Prize is itself rooted in controversy. It came into being just six years ago in 2005 after a hotly contested debate in Britain over opening up the original Booker Prize, traditionally reserved for Commonwealth writers, to all English-language writers. If the prize were opened, Britons feared, Americans would dominate the contest. Thus, the creation of the Booker International: a separate, biennial, international award that would complement the original Man Booker Prize.

This year’s shortlist for the Booker International included 12 other authors, including Americans Anne Tyler and Marilynne Robinson, Canadian Rohinton Mistry, British writer Philip Pullman, Juan Goytisolo of Spain, Australian David Malouf, and Chinese writers Su Tong and Wang Anyi.

In addition to Callil, the three-judge panel included rare book dealer and author Rick Gekoski and novelist Justin Cartwright.

Callil differed sharply from her cojudges' opinions and shared her grievances with Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

The prize, Callil wrote in her Guardian Review column, failed to celebrate the many foreign writers whose works are available in translation, honoring instead “yet another American author.”

What, exactly, is Callil charging in her staunch opposition?

That she simply finds Roth’s body of work unworthy? Or that she considers his novels degrading to women? (There may be a behind-the-scenes row at work, here, as well. Callil is the founder of the feminist Virago Press, which in 1996 published a memoir by Roth’s ex-wife, Claire Bloom, “Leaving a Doll’s House,” which maligned Roth and their troubled marriage. Roth struck back in 1998 with “I Married a Communist,” a score-settling jab at his ex-wife. He has also long been attacked by feminists for his work, which often portrays women in a less-than-flattering light.)

In singling out American authors in her grievance, is Callil suggesting that Americans are overshadowing other worthy writers and threatening to dominate another international contest? (Past Booker International winners have included an Albanian, a Nigerian, and a Canadian.)

Or is she resuscitating a controversial opinion put forth by Nobel judge and permanent secretary Horace Engdahl in 2008 that American writers are “too isolated, too insular,” and therefore unworthy of such a prize? When she says Roth “goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book,” is she charging him with a form of insularity?

Callil will elaborate on her grievances in a Guardian editorial this Saturday. You can bet Americans writers are awaiting it with bated breath and sharpened pencils.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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