Law and Conversation

May 20, 2011

Judging books

Filed under: Books and writing,judiciary,Law,literary prizes — Helen Gunnarsson @ 10:20 am
Tags: , ,

Big literary news this week: as hoped, expected, and predicted by many as a long overdue international recognition, Philip Roth has won the Man Booker International Prize.

But an interesting angle has overshadowed the substantive news.  One of the three judges, Carmen Callil, resigned in protest immediately before the announcement.

As reported in many media outlets, Callil complained that Roth’s oeuvre is the literary equivalent of the emperor’s new clothes. “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.” Callil predicts that 20 years from now, nobody except literary historians will read Roth.

Obviously the two other judges disagreed. One, Rick Gekoski, said Roth began with a masterpiece, “Goodbye, Columbus,” and has only gotten better and better in more than half a century since.

The Guardian has a slew of articles with interesting bits and angles on this story, including one highlighting all 13 authors shortlisted. Callil did an interesting interview on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s “The Book Show” shortly before the three judges met to vote on the prize.  Among other things, Callil said that being a judge had enriched her reading life in part because she’d read so many writers in translation as a result. The Guardian says that Callil will deplore this year’s prize’s failing to “celebrate” any of those writers in her own explanatory essay, to be published tomorrow. She expressed no opinion on Roth, though she and Koval did titter a bit when Koval brought his name up.

I haven’t read, or wanted to read, much Roth. “Portnoy’s Complaint” lost me early on–I’ll just say I left while the main character was in the bathroom 😉 . I did stick with a much later Roth work, “The Human Stain,” and, to my enormous surprise, found that I liked it.

I’m looking forward to reading Callil’s essay in tomorrow’s Guardian. Reading of her disappointment that the prize failed to “celebrate” a writer in translation, I can’t help thinking that the only way around that would have been if it had been awarded to one of those writers, i.e., her choice, I suppose. Several were on the shortlist, which certainly seems to me to be an unequivocal celebration, or recognition, of their worth. The other contenders, who included Philip Pullman, Anne Tyler, and Marilynne Robinson, are also very fine writers. Only one of those 13 marvelous writers could win–that’s just the way the prize is structured. But isn’t it a huge honor to have made the shortlist?

What do you think of Callil’s resignation? Being a lawyer, when I hear the word “judge,” even in the context of a literary award, I naturally think of the courts. Three judges for such a weighty award, selecting from among thirteen finalists, seems too few to me. In my home state of Illinois as well as in the U.S. federal courts, three judges typically sit on appellate panels. If the decision isn’t unanimous, the dissenter doesn’t resign from the panel, but may write his or her own opinion that’s released for public consumption along with the majority opinion. Appeals from that decision go to the supreme court, which has more decisionmakers–seven in the case of Illinois’s supreme court, nine in the U.S.

I wouldn’t suggest authorizing dissents or appeals, but shouldn’t the Man Booker International Prize consider adding a few more judges next time around? I’ll volunteer my service!

UPDATE:  Callil’s Guardian essay is here.

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