A now outdated post written for Bad Reputation.
Philip Roth is a good writer, but I wouldn’t want to shake hands with him.
– Jacqueline Susann’s verdict on Portnoy’s Complaint
Last week was a busy week in the book world. Sainsburys found itself anointed Bookseller of the Year to the chagrin of actual booksellers, the beleaguered Waterstones chain was saved from the asset-stripping abyss, and the Man Booker International Prize went to the veteran novelist Philip Roth. The last of these events made the biggest splash in the mainstream press, due to the consequent resignation in protest from the judging panel of Carmen Callil, the redoubtable founder of Virago Press, who – cue shock, horror, and the frantic ordering by booksellers of Roth’s backlist – disparaged Roth as a writer and disputed his worthiness to win.
“Roth digs brilliantly into himself, but little else is there. His self-involvement and self-regard restrict him as a novelist. And so he uses a big canvas to do small things, and yet his small things take up oceanic room. The more I read, the more tedious I found his work, the more I heard the swish of emperor’s clothes.”
– Carmen Callil: Why I quit the Man Booker International panel
The criticism traditionally levelled at the Roth canon is that it mines a deep seam of misogyny. Although Callil was quick to quash any conjecture that her decision to dish Roth was influenced by feminist considerations, emphasising rather her concerns over awarding the prize to yet another North American novelist, this didn’t prevent the Telegraph reporting the affair under the headline ‘Feminist Judge Resigns…’, nor the majority of reports stressing her feminist credentials – or taint, perhaps – as head of Virago. Although Callil argues that her objections to Roth transcend his portrayal of women, much of the subsequent debate centred on the misogynist-or-not nature of Roth’s writing. Several female authors appear for the prosecution towards the end of this piece, while Linda Grant and Karen Stabiner have previously offered a more nuanced perspective.
What interested me about the whole farrago, apart from the unbecoming glee with which several respondents leapt upon Callil’s admittedly oddly graphic description of her reaction to Roth’s writing (‘[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.’), was how quickly comments to many of the pieces above dived into questions of whether Roth, with his ‘priapic’ preoccupations and thematic concentration on the ups and downs of male sexuality, was just too ‘male’ a writer for Callil’s tastes and, by extension, for those of female readers as a whole. Robert McCrum in the Observer wrote of Callil:
Her expertise is as an ebullient and pioneering feminist publisher from the 1970s. It’s hardly a surprise that she should find herself unresponsive to Roth’s lifelong subject: the adventures of the ordinary sexual (American) man.
Female readers, and especially those with feminist sensibilities, so the argument seems to run, cannot be expected to appreciate or enjoy writing by men which concentrates on the male experience. Any criticisms they might raise of such writing, based on personal evaluations of its quality, technique, or aesthetic appeal, rather than its content, can therefore be instantly dismissed because, well, you were never going to like it anyway, were you. It’s not for you. Apart from anything else, this assertion is unsound: the articles above and elsewhere illustrate that many women do enjoy and appreciate writing by Roth and his contentious ilk – Updike, Amis, Easton Ellis – and it is no less the case that many male readers really don’t. Like the comparable myths about male and female approaches to music and music writing, the suggestion that writers, and readers, can be neatly divided on the basis of gender, and their responses to art explained away accordingly, is as bizarre and unhelpful as it is frustratingly persistent.