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Oct 14, 2011

Philip Roth and the politics of literary prizes

The American novelist Philip Roth has won the Man Booker International Prize, a British award handed out every other year for a writer’s entire body of work. Now, literary prizes are nothing more than a means to sell books; only fools confuse them with the recognition of literary merit. There is no shortage of fools in the Republic of Letters, however.

Plans are under way in Australia, for example, to engender a down-under version of Britain’s Orange Prize for fiction by women. Not that the prize itself should be sneered at. The Orange Prize has done what it was intended to do, bringing attention to terrific novels like Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Marilynne Robinson’s Home, and Linda Grant’s When I Lived in Modern Times. Perhaps the Australian prize will have similar good luck.

No, what is foolish are the reasons given for the prize. “What we are concerned with is the systemic exclusion of women writers over several decades,” the novelist Sophie Cunningham told the Guardian. The very idea that the literary marketplace is capable of a system of any kind is crack-brained. Nor is it immediately obvious why publishers would tolerate the “systemic exclusion” of books that appeal to at least half the reading public (and probably, given women’s reading habits, far more than half). Nevertheless, Cunningham went on to say that the new Australian women’s prize would not be needed “if writing by women was rewarded and valued on its own terms, with equal merit to the way that work written by men is.”

All the women’s prizes in the world will not change the fact that literary merit is not equal, nor is it assigned by sex. Those who seem to be calling for a Title IX regime in literature, where praise and prizes and even book recommendations must be split 50-50 between men and women, are not really interested in literature. For them, literature is merely the jurisdiction in which they happen to seek power and privilege.

Such a person is Carmen Callil, the British publisher who founded Virago Press in 1973. Declaring that she does not “rate him as a writer at all,” Callil quit the Man Booker International Prize jury in a huff when it became clear that the other two judges would not bend to her will and award the prize to someone else than Philip Roth. “Emperor’s clothes,” she sniffed. “In 20 years’ time will anyone read him?”

Whether anyone reads Roth in 20 years will not be decided by a literary prize. Perhaps what will decide the question—and perhaps what her colleagues wished to honor Roth for—is the very commitment to literature that Callil rejects so bitterly. In a career that began 53-and-a-half years ago with the story “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings” in COMMENTARY, Roth has exemplified what I have elsewhere called the moral obligation to write well, which distinguishes the great writer.

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