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Why Philip Roth whole-heartedly deserves the International Man Booker Prize

Last week Philip Roth, one of the world’s most prolific, celebrated and controversial writers, was announced the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2011 during the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The award, worth £60,000, is presented every two years for achievement in fiction on the world stage. Roth beat 12 rival authors – including Rohinton Mistry, Philip Pullman and Anne Tyler – to the award. The prize is given for a life’s work rather than a single book. In previous years, it has gone to uncontroversial members of the international literature scene. But this year, it went to Roth, and immediately a row broke out.

One of the judging panel, Carmen Callil, resigned in protest after Roth was awarded the prize. Callil, author and founder of the feminist publishing house Virago, is angered by the decision to hand the award to the 78-year-old Pulitzer prize-winning American author. Her argument against Roth is that: “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”. She added: “I don’t rate him as a writer at all – Emperor’s clothes: in 20 years’ time will anyone read him? [1]

So does Callil have a case against Roth? Rick Gekoski, Chair of the judging panel, thinks not. He rightly makes the point that in a field that contained Philip Roth who else could have been picked? ‘For more than 50 years Philip Roth’s books have stimulated, provoked and amused an enormous, and still expanding, audience. His imagination has not only recast our idea of Jewish identity, it has also reanimated fiction, and not just American fiction, generally’. [2]

Roth’s work has always divided opinion. His first book, Goodbye Columbus (1959), led to Roth being labelled a self-hating Jew and a misogynist. Roth does love to shock and to go beyond the limits of acceptability but that’s why he’s so funny and interesting. And it’s also why feminists like Callil don’t like him.

Roth is best known for his 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint and for his late-1990s trilogy comprising the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000). Rich in characters and plot, biting in their humour and universal in their themes, Roth’s novels have always dealt with big subjects in an incisive and compelling way. Sex, morality, death, political correctness, paranoia and identity politics are recurring themes in his novels.

And over the course of five decades, Roth’s work has stood the test of time. Portnoy’s Complaint is still as fresh and as funny as it was when it shocked an earlier generation. The Counterlife is a dark and heartfelt study about life and mortality (1987). And his more recent books about dying impotent men (Everyman and Exit Ghost) are a surprisingly moving and engaging look at mortality.

Without question, Roth is the greatest living writer in English. His more recent novellas may have received mixed reviews but even if Indignation and My Humbling weren’t up to his normal standard, Roth is still head and shoulders above most contemporary writers. His latest novel, Nemesis, is a heart-rending look at the Polio epidemic that hit New Jersey during the summer of 1944 and is as fresh, memorable, and alive with feeling as anything he has written.

Roth should be judged on the quality of his writing not whether you agree with his politics or subject matter. For over fifty years Roth has produced outstanding literature. His observations and humour are still sharp as ever, as is his rage against the worst aspects of modernity. He always gives an authentic and compelling portrayal of human existence and the human condition.

Roth treats us as intelligent adults capable of absorbing intricate, nuanced morally ambigious characters. As a writer, he is often bleak. But despite his dark, tragic storytelling, he still manages to reinforce our best opinions of the human potential. It is heartening to know that despite the dearth of intelligent, quality writing, Roth can still remind us what it means to be human today.

Theresa Clifford

[1] Telegraph 18 May 2011
[2] Guardian 18 May 2011

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About Theresa Clifford

I am a senior manager/digital consultant with international agency experience in leading the delivery of holistic customer-centric strategies and digital programmes. I am also a Tutor/Presenter in Digital Marketing for the Marketing Association and a regular writer and speaker on digital trends. If you would like to discuss any aspect of your digital requirements, please feel free to contact me. (e) mstheresaclifford@hotmail (m) +64 21 026 17779

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