Booking Philip Roth

Have you  been reading this flap about Philip Roth winning the Man Booker Prize?  It seems Carmen Callil resigned from the committee after the panel of three (2 to 1) chose Roth, with whose body of work you might say she has a little problem:

“There are great moments in Roth’s work. He is clever, harsh, comic, but his reach is narrow. Not in the Austen, Bellow or Updike sense, because they use a narrow canvas to convey the widest concepts and ideas. 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, The Guardian (May 21, 2011)


I’ve never been a huge fan, but it’s safe to say that my husband is fan-enough as there’s a pretty full Philip Roth shelf in our library.  Over the years, he’s suggested I read his favorite — AMERICAN PASTORAL — and though I’ve tried a few times, I’ve never been able to get going with it.  I’ll read maybe 20 or 40 pages and then back it goes, back to its slip on the shelf.  And I might have finished HUMAN STAIN, might have, but it’s been so long I can’t really remember.  I’d remember that, wouldn’t I?

A couple of years ago, I took a summer class with a favorite professor and, as summer heated up and school wound down, the last novel we raced through and discussed was Roth’s THE GHOST WRITER.  It’s the first in a trilogy and introduces the character/narrator Nathan Zuckerman, a young writer obsessed with his literary idol.  It’s at once a meditation on the writing life, the lines between fiction and nonfiction, obsession, and a pretty damned good mystery.  Less than 200 pages.  I couldn’t put it down.  I fanned through the pages of THE GHOST WRITER today to see if I’d marked anything and found just one little underlined phrase towards the end.  The great writer’s wife complains to Nathan:  Nothing can be touched, nothing can be changed, everybody must be quiet, the children must shut up, their friends must stay away until four — There is his religion of art, my young successor: rejecting life!  Not living is what he makes his beautiful fiction out of! (p. 174)

Why did this, this one phrase, stand out, I wonder?  Do you ever write notes in the margins or underline something, only to go back years later and wonder what in the hell you were trying to capture?

Anyway, I got to thinking about Callil’s comments about Mr. Roth.  He uses a big canvas to do small things, she said.  In this little book, nothing seemed small at all.  In fact, what impressed me the most about the story was it’s complexity and richness and big themes.  A whole lotta story in so few pages.

I don’t know if Callil is right or wrong.  Who knows what discussions went on in that committee room.  And I do understand how frustrating it must be to have such a big list of talented writers (see the list of finalist below) and have your peers choose the one person you don’t think deserving.  But is it more than that?  More than personal taste?  I can’t decide.

What I do know is that I’m prompted to go back soon and read the next 2 books in Roth’s GHOST WRITER trilogy to see if I can see what all the flap is about.

The 2011 Man Booker Prize finalists:  Wang Anyi, Juan Goytisolo, James Kelman, John le Carré, Amin Maalouf, David Malouf, Dacia Maraini, Rohinton Mistry, Philip Pullman, Marilynne Robinson, Su Tong, Anne Tyler.


7 thoughts on “Booking Philip Roth

  1. amyg

    “and yet his small things take up oceanic room” can we get a freud interpretation on that comment, please?

    my goodness; it sounds like phil broke into carmen’s house when she was a kid to kill her dog.

    i haven’t read roth but i remember a three-book set of his paperback’s on a bookshelf we kept in the basement.

    i just wrote this in the book i finished yesterday (chronology of water). “this is it. this saved my manuscript.” i was talking about a point in the story where she punches a hole in the bathroom wall and it reminded me of when i kicked a whole in the wall of my childhood home when i was approximately the same age (15? 16?) and just like that i figured out how to make my work. i think. maybe.

  2. Lyra

    I was late coming to Roth, once again, it was a husband introduction.
    Having read him though, I tend to think it’s a case of a personal preference to see so many you think are more deserving, and have it come down to one who…I’ll leave it there.

    I overheard an big author in response to a private question that I didn’t hear say, “It’s not like I’m Roth.” It was sarcastic, and disparaging and I came out of it thinking no love lost there. Maybe there’s a personal thing that people in the know, know?

  3. macdougalstreetbaby

    I wasn’t much of a reader growing up (feh) but somehow Portnoy’s Complaint found its way onto my empty shelf. I remember reading it in what seemed like one sitting. I can’t speak for any of his other work but that story, that character, spoke to me.

  4. lizisilver

    I am a fan of Roth so my interpretation of this incident may not be objective, but I find the way she speaks about the situation and her handling of it immature and dubious. It sounds like she dislikes Roth more than she dislikes his writing. Her words are dripping with venom that can’t be ignored and can’t be attributed only to her belief in the weakness of Roth’s writing.

    1. Teri Post author

      She does sound like she took her bitter pill, doesn’t she? I understand her point that it’s an “international” prize, etc… but that doesn’t preclude American writers (note Marilynne Robinson and whatnot) and her bullet points don’t seem to support the international argument.

      She doesn’t like Philip Roth. I get it. But what it has to do with this prize, I don’t get.

      And all these prizes are such subjective things. I once read where judges of the Nat’l Book Award don’t read all the books. Allegedly. Why this shocked me, I don’t know. Judges are human. Allegedly. But really, you don’t read all the books, and then you award prizes? With money? Say it ain’t so Joe.

  5. lisahgolden

    I was introduced to Roth early in my relationship with my husband who is definitely a Roth fan. We were staying at his mother’s house in Chicago and while we lived together, his mother was adamant that we not sleep together under her roof until after we were married. So he gave me Goodbye, Columbus to read one night to help me sleep. I ended up not sleeping because I couldn’t stop reading.

    I think a whole bunch of what goes on with awards and the like is about personal taste and payback – good or bad.

  6. Jennifer Sanford

    I’m with Rex. American Pastoral is one of my favorites. The Human Stain…I read twice! One of Lori’s favorites is Plot Against America. Get to it, Teri. Read more Roth and give us a solid opinion. I have always valued your opinions and now as a hoity-toity graduate, they hold even more water.

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