“There she goes again”: oh no! Intelligent feminist gives an opinion!

List of Finalists Press Conference at the University of Sydney, l to r Justin Cartwright, Carmen Callil, Rick Gekoski, Fiammetta Rocco

As you may have noticed, it doesn’t take much to get my goat. I am, as my grandmother would have put it, “twined as a bag of weasels” — i.e., highly strung, and apt to react explosively to the slightest thing.

In other words, I’m prone to overreaction, and you should perhaps bear that in mind as we continue here (I’m being particularly cautious in light of recent events, when the weasels got out of the bag when they perhaps should not have). But is it just me, or does anyone else have a bit of a problem with Robert McCrum’s dismissal of 2011 International Booker judge Carmen Callil?

The back-story: Philip Roth has just been announced as the winner of the 2011 International Booker Prize, a pretty big fish to land. Carmen Callil, founder of feminist press Virago and one of the three judges, was so upset by this decision that she quit the panel the day before the announcement was made. Her main reasons for fighting the panel’s decision were that Roth, in her opinion, “goes on and on about the same subject in almost every book.” She said, “it’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe… I don’t rate him as a writer at all.” [1]. She also expressed dismay at the fact that a North American writer had been chosen when the longlist contained many ‘less obvious’ options, including several works in translation by writers from China, Spain, Lebanon and elsewhere.

Personally, I’m with Callil, for the most part. She’s right — Roth is incredibly, incredibly prolific. In my local Waterstone’s, his books take up an entire shelf — an honour usually only reserved for writers of by-numbers crime fic and the like (a spot of Rankin, anyone? He practically gets his own section in my neck of the woods). And the vast majority of these dozens of books do roughly cover the same sort of territory. I mean, sure, the guy knows how to write, and he’s insanely popular (hence, the whole shelf to himself thing). But when a literary prize is awarded for “one writer’s overall achievement in literature” and is definitely “[in] recognition of the writer’s body of work, rather than any one title” [2], surely it’s pertinent to at least raise the issue of variety and originality?

Not according to Robert McCrum, whose piece at the Guardian blog essentially says “well I like Philip Roth, so ner-ner-ner!” He doesn’t really explain why Roth “more than deserves his Booker,” choosing instead to take the opportunity to get a few personal digs in at Callil. He begins by saying that Roth has “behaved with rather more dignity” than her — he is too cowardly to just come out and say that he felt her behaviour was undignified, but it’s hardly a great leap. He also accused Callil of being “eccentric”, “rash,” and perhaps most nastily, of “lov[ing] a headline.” I assume that by this he is referring to the time that her book Bad Faith fell victim to somewhat histrionic censorship — not really a scenario I can imagine her deliberately engineering. Or is he in fact referring to the fact that, sometime in the 1970s, Callil founded a feminist press, and then in the following years and decades, turned it into a huge international success? When he says that she “love[s] a headline”, does he actually just mean she is a successful woman who is unafraid to speak her mind?

McCrum is not openly sexist anywhere in his article, but Callil’s gender is the elephant in the room of the whole piece. McCrum says “it’s hardly a surprise that [Callil] should find herself unresponsive to Roth’s lifelong subject: the adventures of the ordinary sexual (American) man.” There are numerous reasons why that is a bullshit thing to say. First of all, she is clearly not “unresponsive” in the slightest — I’d say that disliking a writer’s work so strongly that you resign from a literary judging panel suggests a pretty damn strong response. Secondly, McCrum is essentially saying she doesn’t get Roth because she’s a feminist, and by extension feminists can’t relate to “the adventures of the ordinary sexual (American) man.” Make only a tiny leap and you’ve arrived at the idea that women in general don’t, or can’t, access Roth’s work.

Let’s interrogate this. Never mind the fact that feminists, and indeed all women, are obviously totally capable of understanding and relating to Macho Man Stuff, even, or perhaps especially, “Sexual” Macho Man Stuff (and, you know, we’d know better than you, but thanks for the mansplainin’). Let’s just assume for a second that McCrum is right. Feminists/women don’t, or can’t, ‘get’ Roth’s work. Firstly – is that our fault? Are we somehow deficient, or could it be that Roth’s writing actually doesn’t have a desperately wide appeal for readers beyond the male, cis, Western viewpoint it portrays? And secondly, if Roth manages to alienate one seriously hefty percentage of the world’s population with his Sexual Macho Man Adventure Books, should we really be giving him a literary prize designed to recognise a writer’s “influence on writers and readers worldwide”?

Like Callil, I’m starting to think not. I’m also starting to think that Robert McCrum is actually more anti-Callil than he is pro-Roth. And you know, since he chooses to make a big deal out of the fact she’s a feminist, I am also starting to think that maybe he’s just ever-so-slightly queasy about women who speak up for themselves, who do things like start hugely successful publishing houses under the banner of feminism, and who get to read on seriously esteemed judging panels, the likes of which a Guardian hack can only dream of. I’m being presumptuous here, I know – but can we imagine McCrum describing a male prize judge as “rash” and accusing them of being petty (his oh-so-condescending “big deal” response to Callil’s concerns)? I can’t help but think that actually, when Robert McCrum says “Philip Roth more than deserves his Booker,” what he means is “Carmen Callil more than deserves to be smacked down.”



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