Should Philip Roth have won the Nobel Prize?

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Should Philip Roth have won the Nobel Prize?
Philip Roth photographed in 2005. Photo: AP Photo/Douglas Healey

Was the Swedish Academy wrong to never honour Philip Roth with a Nobel Literature Prize? The death of the prolific American novellist has led to his admirers scorning the body.


"RIP Philip Roth who for 'American Pastoral' alone deserved the Nobel he was shamefully denied," Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, tweeted on Wednesday.

Known for mining the Jewish-American experience in his work throughout the latter half of the 20th century, Roth was often tipped for Nobel Literature Prize, but the Swedish Academy which selects the laureate, ignored him.

Being snubbed for the Nobel every year had "become a joke" for the author, said his friend French writer Josyane Savigneau on Wednesday.

The author, who died on Tuesday, was proposed several times for the Nobel award, but it's impossible to clarify why he didn't win as the academy's considerations are kept secret for 50 years.

"It's a shame the Nobel judges couldn't get their act together to honour him before his passing," Ted Gioia, a culture writer, tweeted on Wednesday.

The author of 'Portnoy's Complaint' (1969), which tells the story of a horny teenager named Alexander Portnoy, was however honoured with the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for 'American Pastoral' (1997).

Roth later won the 2011 Man Booker International Prize which described him as "one of the world's most prolific, celebrated – and controversial – writers".

'Dirty old man'

His work is praised by fans for portraying the exploration of sexuality, the American society and the Jewish identity, but interpreted by others as objectifying women.

"He was an exceptionally ambitious and comprehensive writer but also 'a dirty old man'," Madelaine Levy, literature editor at the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet, told AFP.

Jonas Axelsson, Roth's former publisher for a Swedish company, said critics have interpreted his work as "portraying women as an object and the men as a subject".

"His sincere depictions have touched on taboo issues and created a situation which has divided people," he told AFP.

For the first time in almost 70 years, the Swedish Academy announced earlier this month there will be no Nobel Literature Prize this year in the wake of a crisis stemming from the anti-sexual harassment #MeToo campaign.

"He could be seen as representing a male perspective on the world which the MeToo (campaign) is hoping to dissolve … so that the sexual experiences of women can emerge," Levy said.

Axelsson said this would probably not have "improved Roth's chances" of winning the prize if he were still alive.

'One of the greatest writers'

To qualify, nominees must still be alive, and, according to the strict rules laid out by Alfred Nobel, must have published a piece of work within the past year, though the Academy has occasionally strayed from that requirement.

In 2012, Roth said that his most recent book, 'Nemesis', published two years earlier, would be his last, after having reread all his books.

The criticism against the Academy for not honouring Roth with the Nobel Prize comes after the body was plunged into turmoil by claims from 18 women that they were raped, sexually assaulted or harassed by an influential cultural figure with long-standing ties to the venerable body.

Jean-Claude Arnault, the French husband of Academy member and poet Katarina Frostenson, has denied the allegations, but disagreements within the Academy on how to deal with the issue sowed deep discord among its 18 members.

The organization found itself split, with the first woman permanent secretary Sara Danius and her supporters bidding for reform while another camp defended Frostenson, prompting six members to quit, inlcuding the latter.

But these incidents don't seem to matter much for Roth's admirers.

"He did not receive the Nobel Literature Prize but he will remain forever as one of the greatest writers of our time," tweeted former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

The Academy, which stunned observers when it in 2016 honoured US singer-songwriter Bob Dylan with the prize, said it would announce two laureates in 2019.

In 2017, it honoured British author Kazuo Ishiguro, a much less controversial choice.

Article by AFP's Ilgin Karlidag and Gaël Branchereau

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