Howard Jacobson: Critics who need to examine themselves

Carmen Callil is not obliged to enjoy Philip Roth. But she sets a bad example in confusing her failure with his

Saturday 28 May 2011 00:00

Just back from the Sydney Writers' Festival, where the sun shone, the harbour glistened, and, in his absence, Philip Roth was awarded the International Man Booker Prize.

Also absent was Carmen Callil who, as everyone now knows, withdrew from the three-person judging panel after the event – which by general consent was a bit late – complaining that though Roth was the unequivocal choice of the other judges, he was not hers, and therefore should not have won.

A more democratic way of doing it, she argued, is to go down the list until you find the candidate none of you particularly likes but no one particularly hates – a formula that invariably favours the colourless over the vivid, but then she doesn't find Roth vivid.

But it wasn't so much the rights and wrongs of the voting system that had writers at the festival spluttering into their wine glasses, as the reasons Carmen Callil gave for being unable to live with the idea of Roth as the winner – to wit his having only one subject, his "going on and on" about it, the unlikeliness of his being remembered in another 20 years (a bold prognostication, as he is still remembered after 50, his first book having been published in 1959), and his making her feel when she reads him that he is sitting on her face.

Until now, we agreed, the criterion of whether a writer made a reader feel he/she was sitting on his/her face had never been applied. Could this, we wondered, be the beginning of something new in letters.

Now that the Bad Sex Awards have become predictable an inaugural Carmen Callil "Is He Sitting on Your Face" Prize, judged by her alone, as that's the system she prefers, is something I, for one, would welcome. And why stop there? Wouldn't it enliven the exam papers English literature students have to plod through if the questions acknowledged the Callil methodology? As for example, and this is just a first stab at it:

1) Name at least one writer of poetry and two writers of prose, each from a different century, who can fairly be described as sitting on your face.

2) Is there any contemporary English or Commonwealth writer on whose face you would like to sit? Please give reasons.

3) Jane Austen describes the heroine of Mansfield Park as "my Fanny". Discuss with reference to the Roth/Callil fracas.

This is the point, I think, at which I should come clean and admit that I too was once made to feel by Carmen that I was sitting on her face, though in fairness to her she never put it quite like that. My first novel had been bought by Chatto and Windus a few months before Carmen took over as its publishing director. Finding herself lumbered with me – an annoyance it is to her eternal credit that she did not scruple to conceal – she told me at our first meeting that she couldn't sell me if I "ran naked down Bond Street". Which I don't mind saying was something of a relief. "Couldn't you have an affair with someone famous?" she enquired when we met again. That there was something sexualised or, if you like, over gender-oriented, about the way she saw things I should have realised sooner than I did, but there was no missing it when she took to my manuscript with a blue pen, crossing out every reference to a woman's body – not just "breast" and "thigh", but also "eyebrow", "elbow" and "armpit".

"So what words am I supposed to use instead?" I asked her. "I don't know, darling," she said. "You're the writer." She has since been very generous to me, as she is to many writers of either sex, so I am loth to put our initial difficulty down to the permanent obstacle of my being a man. Instead, I ascribe it to the clumsy feminism of the times, when every description of a woman by a man was taken as an appropriation of her person. I knew something of this sensitivity, having worked in Australia where objection to the male gaze was particularly virulent, and Carmen, after all, was Australian. Only later did I realise she was of the same vintage (late 1930s), and from the same city (Melbourne), as Germaine Greer.

Why women born in Melbourne in the late 1930s found the voice of men so threatening is as astrologically difficult to account for as why they are unable to get a joke: but that's the undoubted truth of it, and partly accounts for Carmen's blind spot in regard to Roth. He might not have been very funny of late but he is the author of some of the most wildly funny novels ever written, and for his comedy alone deserves to mop up every prize for fiction going.

Of course, if you don't get it, you don't get it. No one can make you laugh, and if you are a woman born in Melbourne in the late 1930s no one should be so sadistic as to try. But conversely, you cannot pass your deafness off as a virtue. People with no ear for the ridiculous, who do not hear the music of comedy and do not understand the point of it, might deserve our pity, but an incapacity remains an incapacity.

It has already been well argued that the charge of going "on and on" would knock out most writers from Rabelais to Proust, and that as many women writers are as interested in themselves as women as male writers are interested in themselves in men. Reader, when it comes to novelists sitting on your face, nothing beats the experience of having all three Brontë sisters lowering themselves on you simultaneously.

So while Carmen Callil is not obliged to enjoy Roth at full frolic, or even at his most deeply contemplative and tragic, she sets a bad example in confusing her failure with his. There is enough of this defiant subjectivism on the internet and in our papers, on blogs, in reading groups, and in those ejaculations of self that call themselves reviews on Amazon.

Here is our besetting sin; we can tell ourselves from what is not ourselves. There is a moment in the making of any judgement when you must ask whether it is the thing itself – the book, the film, the song – you are describing, or just you. For what we think is boring is often no more than our incapacity to be interested, and what we call suffocating is often no more than a report from our own congested passages.

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