May 20, 2011

Critics respond to literary "face-sitting"


As reported yesterday, Booker International judge Carmen Callil was a vocal dissenter to Philip Roth winning the prize because “It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.”

These strong words and vivid imagery have led to a plethora of reactions. Here is a sampling:

Wendy Kaminer at The Atlantic:

I understand why Roth arouses the ire of some feminists, and I’m not suggesting that they should refrain from expressing it; but I expect a member of a prestigious literary panel to be capable of separating her antipathy for a writer’s sensibilities and ideas from her evaluation of his talent.

Jonathan Jones at The Guardian:

If Roth wrote in a more cautious, less vigorous and provocative way he would not be Roth. And then we would not possess one of the great artists of the novel. It seems astonishing that anyone who claims to care about literature could fail to recognise that Philip Roth is a true giant, warts and all.

John Freeman at

A part of me sympathizes with Callil — not in her feelings about Roth’s work, which I think will last, especially his novel, The Counterlife — but for that feeling of outrage when a process which feels reasonable produces an outcome that offends your very core as a reader. Several years ago I was a judge on a panel that short-listed a book that I thought wasn’t just poorly written, but a racist work of political propaganda. I said as much at the time, and would say it again now. I was also the chairman of the organization giving the prize, and I knew this breach of secrecy could appear like foul play. I didn’t care. The book, to me, felt like foul play, and if you don’t speak to your beliefs, what are you?

Macy Halford at The New Yorker:

Face-sitting is as aggressive an image as I’ve ever heard used in dismissing a writer’s work….But it’s also ridiculous: agreeing to serve as a judge on a panel with two other people means agreeing to respect the decision of the majority, especially if one has known for months that the decision was a possibility. That’s all I’ll say about Callil’s actions here, but it might not be all that gets said about them: I hear that Philip Roth is quite good at turning the facts of his life into fiction.

And heard around the office:

It’s perfect. Even at his moment of triumph, he’s a failure… and vice-versa. This must have made his day: not so much winning the prize as knowing he still has the power to offend.

All this only confirms what I’ve often argued: that literary prizes in of themselves are as dull as ditchwater, but the debate surrounding them is mighty good fun.