Tablet magazine published a series of satirical posts Friday responding to Philip Roth’s fictional Nobel Prize in Literature honor, which in reality went to Canadian author Alice Munro.
One post, which got the most attention, was a fairly straightforward-seeming announcement that the author had won the award. “Philip Roth Wins Nobel Prize” appeared to confuse some readers, and was taken at face value by a handful of people on Twitter. The post is tagged as satire, though in small font at the bottom of the page, and the accompanying photo includes the label “The Counter Prize.” Still, roughly half of those who commented on the story didn’t realize it was intended as satire (and even some who did get it didn’t think it was funny).
But those behind the stories appear to believe that it’s the reader’s responsibility to distinguish between fact and high-concept fiction. “The joke doesn’t work unless you are familiar with Roth,” Tablet editor Alana Newhouse said, explaining that the pieces were representative of the alternate realities that appear in some, but certainly not all, of Roth’s work.
“You’re not going to get the joke if you don’t get the joke,” Newhouse said. “I laughed when I saw a commenter sneer, ‘Don’t you read newspapers?’ I wish I could have invented him.” She addressed the same comment on Twitter.
Commenter: "Don't you people read newspapers?" Sometimes! We also occasionally read BOOKS, which is totally crazy. http://t.co/PPwCtHvSIg
â€” Alana Newhouse (@alananewhouse) October 11, 2013
Newhouse explained that there was a self-referential component to the posts. “There's an aspect of it that's a spoof on us,” she said. “That is the way we tried to imagine that Tablet would react” if Roth had in fact won the Nobel Prize. Indeed, Tablet's Liel Leibovitz, who has been vocally and genuinely critical of Roth in the past ("Roth’s primary preoccupation is Roth”), penned "And So, He Won: Why Philip Roth Shouldn't Have Won The Nobel Prize."
I have read several of Roth’s novels (though not “The Plot Against America,” which reimagines an alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh is elected President of the United States in 1940) and it was not immediately clear to me, even after it was clear that the post was satire, what exactly the point was of the “Philip Roth Wins Nobel Prize,” other than that he obviously didn’t .
It would be one thing if Tablet were a satirical news site in the vein of the Onion or the Daily Currant, but as far as I can tell, this week is the first time it has published satire. The online magazine, which calls itself “A New Read on Jewish Life,” has won two National Magazine Awards, and may be best known for contributor Michael Moynihan’s firm but gentle takedown of Jonah Lehrer, notorious self-plagiarizer and inventor of Bob Dylan quotes.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a group of writers and editors having a little bit of fun with an inside joke. But it’s not admirable, nor is it good business, to play a game of “gotcha” with your readers. We are left only to guess whether that was Tablet’s intent.