US Writers Cop Some Self-Criticism

Sheet music of 'Stars & Stripes Forever' by John Philip Sousa, from the Library of Congress via WikiCommons

Sheet music of 'Stars & Stripes Forever' by John Philip Sousa, from the Library of Congress via WikiCommons

The debate over Philip Roth’s legacy continues following his win of the Man Booker International Prize last week, honouring his overall achievement. One of the prize judges, Virago founder Carmen Callil, quit her position following the announcement, as we reported last week, saying, “he goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book.” On the weekend, Callil explained in the Guardian that her reservations about Roth were not political but literary. “Roth digs brilliantly into himself, but little else is there,” the report quotes Callil as saying. “His self-involvement and self-regard restrict him as a novelist. And so he uses a big canvas to do small things, and yet his small things take up oceanic room. The more I read, the more tedious I found his work, the more I heard the swish of emperor’s clothes.”

In her overview of the story, Salon’s Laura Miller says that although it’s unfair to presume Callil was motivated by ideology, her reaction was inappropriate: “insulting an author (any author) by name in such a context is uncalled for. There are enough readers who love Roth’s work to make him a reasonable choice for an important award, even if Callil can’t personally endorse that choice.”

An even more interesting reaction is by Anis Shivani in the Huffington Post, who connected the story to an older story about the resistance of the Nobel committee to US writers on the basis that American literature is too introspective. The permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize jury, Horace Engdahl, recently said, “The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature…That ignorance is restraining.”

Shivani agrees, adding, “Our publishing model, like that of the lapsed auto industry, is a failed one. It survives only because of our gigantism - mere volume is sufficient to ensure a certain amount of financial success, but it is not producing a worthwhile cultural product. Just as we might have 500 television channels but not one will ever offer the challenging movies of Buñuel or Godard, or a Wagner opera, we might produce 175,000 books a year, but quality is elusive.” Shivani says US readers overestimate the importance of the recent greats - Roth, Updike, DeLillo, Pynchon - but that because these writers restrict themselves to an American version of reality their global significance is limited. “What recent American novel - by an American, not an immigrant, writer - accepts or even acknowledges the new global reality, even with America at its center?” asks Shivani, answering, “There is none.”

US author Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Home at the End of the World, The Hours, Specimen Days and, most recently, By Nightfall, is appearing tonight at the Wheeler Centre from 7:30pm. Tickets are free.

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