In Appreciation of Philip Roth

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


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."

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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.