What's A Judge To Do?: A Dissenter Protests Philip Roth's Latest Award

May 18, 2011

Philip Roth has won so many literary prizes, new ones need to be invented for him. Today, he added one such newish laurel to his chest of awards: the Man Booker International Prize. (Launched in 2005, the International Prize is awarded only every other year — making Roth the fourth winner.)

But as is often the case with British-based prizes, the gossip one normally hears at awards dinners in America is already in the newspaper there. Carmen Callil, a judge of the prize and also a notable publisher and historian, withdrew from the panel in protest. "I don't rate him as a writer at all," she told The Guardian."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."

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?

Callil's objection to Roth's selection sounds, at first, aesthetic, rather than moral. But it's actually very hard to pull these two strands of thinking life apart. What offends us in fiction probably disturbs us in life, too. So we should hear her voice, even if it adds a taste of acid to what, for Roth, should be a day for champagne. Books, to remain part of our culture, need debate, discussion, and strong opinions, not totems. Literary prizes, if treated with too much decorum, become just that. They give us the false impression that taste is a measurable, rankable thing, that it is assigned and handed down by the gods.

Prizes are just as subjective as opinions. And they can be wrong, too. Except, in this case, this one isn't, I think.

John Freeman is the editor of Granta and the author of The Tyranny of E-mail. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.