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Wrath about Roth

Wrath about Roth

A new biography of Philip Roth, winner of the International Booker Prize in 2011, has revealed that the author was a highly-sexed individual, habitually unfaithful, and a man who often treated the women in his life appallingly. Although this is hardly breaking news, it has led to the inevitable questions about whether in these febrile times Roth’s books might be “cancelled” as a result and his reputation as one of the greats of 20th- and 21st-century literature be left in ashes. Who better to pass judgement on the question than another of those greats, the two-time Booker prize winner Peter Carey? “I know very many distinguished literary academics and writers who still admire Roth’s work and so do I,” said Carey recently. “And part of him is reprehensible but if the reprehensible person can every now and then produce a work of genius we need to see the genius.” Carey suspected that Roth’s fiction might suffer temporarily but “I think the work will come back. I don’t think we’re going to lose great literature because Roth acted like an arsehole. In the end the work will survive.” Carey, incidentally, is hard at work on his next book, his 21st, but is coy about what it is about and when it will be finished. He did vouchsafe though that it is set “south of Indonesia”.


Douglas Stuart’s 2020 Booker prize winner, Shuggie Bain, was released as a paperback in Britain this week and the new format will supercharge sales of an already supercharged book. The novel was published during the pandemic, the prize awarded in the shadow of Covid, bookshops across the land have been closed during the lockdowns yet Stuart’s publishers, Pan Macmillan, have just announced that Shuggie Bain has so far sold a remarkable 500,000 copies across all formats. Outside the lockdown periods, more than 100,000 hardbacks were bought in the UK alone. What’s more, there is plenty more to come since translation rights have sold in 38 languages, including, according to The Bookseller, Marathi, Tamil, Georgian, Mongolian and Mandarin, while film-rights have been auctioned too. While the Prize can’t claim all the credit it is clear than even a global pandemic can’t take the spring out of the “Booker bounce”.


After winning the Booker Prize in 1997 with The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy turned her energies to political activism. Then, 20 years later, she published a second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which was longlisted for that year’s prize. Nevertheless, her two novels are outnumbered 10-1 by her 20 works of non-fiction. So she’s the perfect person to ask about what constitutes the “political” in literature. “Who’s to say what is political and what isn’t?” she says. “After all, in everything we write we make a series of choices – what moves us, what doesn’t, what is important, what isn’t, what to include, what to omit. . . and thereby emerges our politics.” And she had just one rule for the difference between fiction and non-fiction: “they had both better be good”. As she says, pithily, “There’s no excuse for bad art. Not even good politics.”


The interconnectedness of literature and politics is the raison d’être of the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction, which has just released its longlist. Four Booker Prize alumni appear on it: Douglas Stuart (Shuggie Bain), Ali Smith (Summer), Colum McCann (Apeirogon), and Abdulrazak Gurnah (Afterlives). None of these books are explicitly about politics but each confirms the wisdom of Roy’s aperçu about politics emerging from a novelist’s choices.


A couple of dates for the diary. . . the shortlist for the International Booker prize is upon us: it will be revealed on 22 April. And while the fact that the winner would be unveiled outside London for the first time – in Coventry, this year’s City of Culture – the date for this bit of history has now been released, 2 June.