Monday, May 23, 2011

Words Generally Only Spoil Things: In Defense of Philip Roth's Man Booker Prize

For those of you who aren't aware, Philip Roth was recently awarded the Man Booker International Prize, which is awarded every other year to an author who has made outstanding contributions to literature. The nod to Roth prompted an outcry from (and the departure of) one of the judging panel's members. Carmen Callil decried the choice of Roth in remarks that, since Callil spoke with The Guardian, have reappeared in the L.A. Times and other newspapers. "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 states, before elaborating on her contempt: "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."

So, this is last week's news from the literary world, and it has, accordingly, raised a range of questions about Roth's suitability for the award. But this focus, brought to us by Callil, turns us toward whether or not the author meshes with the judges' politics or aesthetics, when such a panel needs to consider whether or not the person's works have added something to literature, something that has irrevocably changed the literary landscape and recharted how we think about books and the potential of fiction.

Callil contends that Roth is a one-trick pony with no staying power. Yet, her attacks fail to undermine the poignancy of his fiction and his novels' power to incite controversy, to force us to reconsider some pretty central ontological, epistemological issues. Who are we, and how do we learn who we are? For those contending that Roth's only subject matter is some variation on a Roth-like persona, I'd counter that Roth is simply using that with which he has the most familiarity--his own experiences--to force us into these considerations.

I'll state, for the record, that there are moments and stylistic choices in his most recent novels that didn't jive with me. Roth's best, though, is haunting and intellectually riveting. To Roth's naysayers, I'd ask them to consider how Roth grapples with the national consciousness in novels such as The Plot against America or how Roth tackles issues of personal identity in Operation Shylock, where a fictionalized Philip Roth discovers that he has an impersonator also going by the moniker Philip Roth. In Shylock, Roth negotiates mirroring of identities and personalities--his avatar with his imposter, an elderly Demjanjuk with the concentration camp slaughterer Ivan the Terrible--in a manner that seems fresh, considered, especially since this novel comes in the post-Lacan, mirror-obsessed world.

The fact that Roth is such a divisive figure--that people feel they have to engage with Roth's legacy in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries--is indicative of the sway that his fiction possesses. Love or hate Roth, he's here, and he's captured the critical imagination. His fiction contends with some issues central to the American experience, to the international Jewish experience, to local communities, to cultural transformation, and to interpretations of crises. Regardless of the presence of Roth stand-ins or the masculine points of view, his novels have structured problematic realities that force readers to stake out their own positions.

If that's not altering the literary landscape, I'm not sure what is. Our ideological maps of various constructs--America, masculinity, Jewishness, artistry, rationality--do not survive Roth's novels with their borders intact, even if you dislike his prose.


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