In Appreciation of Philip Roth

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Carmen Callil was likely suffering from ideologically inspired illiteracy when she quit the Booker International Prize panel because the author won the award

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Jason Reed/Reuters


Philip Roth can probably find the humor in Carmen Callil's boorish dismissal of his work--"I don't rate him as a writer at all," she proclaimed, resigning from the judging panel that awarded him the Man Booker International prize. But I'm discouraged by what I assume is her ideologically inspired illiteracy. 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. I've never felt much kinship with Margaret Atwood, but I wouldn't call her a second rate writer, much less no kind of a writer at all. I'd simply say her work doesn't speak to me.

Question my feminism if you must, but reading Roth's books I always feel immersed in conversation with him, although I like letting him do all the talking. Carmen Callil has a tin ear and no sense of rhythm if she can't at least appreciate the sound of his sentences, which I sometimes read out loud to myself. He ranges widely--over American politics and culture, filial as well as sexual relations, assimilation, depression, randomness, and death, among other subjects, which Callil may be too distracted by irritation at his bad attitude to notice. I don't know how else to account for her blinkered observation that "he goes on and on about the same subject in almost every single book."

I've read almost every one of his books, beginning with Goodbye, Columbus, which I discovered in my teens. Decades later, I used stories collected there (mainly "The Conversion of the Jews") when I taught a freshmen expository writing class. My students, children of the Reagan years, found his protagonists too disrespectful of authority, and I feared then that we were headed for trouble. Reading Roth over the years, I've argued with other feminists over the virtues of his work and always found the arguments pointless. Often they're not literary arguments but emotional or ideological ones, reflecting their identification with his female characters and my identification with his narrators. I cried for Nathan Zuckerman, and they were glad to see him go.

I understand. In my years as an undergraduate English major, (at a women's college) I read great male novelists--Conrad, James, Forster, and Faulkner (the subject of my senior thesis)--but hardly any works by women. Then, as an antidote to law school, I read through Virginia Woolf and George Eliot, with a sense of revelation. But Roth's voice remains more resonant for me, a reminder that neither ideology nor the bounds of sex and gender need limit empathy, or imagination.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and spiked-online.com. Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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