Philip Roth says the novel is screwed

Daily Beast Editor Tina Brown asked esteemed author Philip Roth, in this Vimeo video, about the future of the novel.

Basically, Roth says, the novel is screwed.  Not even the Kindle can save the novel, because it has to compete against all those screens: first the movie screen, then the TV screen, and now the computer screen.  Now all three of those are out there, and the book just doesn’t measure up.

Roth predicts that in 25 years the novel will have a “cultic” following, perhaps slightly larger than the group of people who now read Latin poetry.  What do you think?  Is he right?  Or will the novel carry on as it has these last centuries?

Grumpy old man

Grumpy old man

It does occur to me that as recently as a century or two ago, the reading public for a novel was perhaps at what Roth might call a cultic level.  Then came the Golden Age of Reading, from perhaps the late 1800s through, say, the 1930s.  Now novel-reading is in an inevitable decline, soon to return to being the pastime of a small group of hobbyists?

But perhaps Roth is speaking only of the literary novel, which already could be said to have largely a cultic following, big prizes and splashy headlines aside.  People line up for Dan Brown’s pulp, but how many will read Roth’s latest offering, The Humbling? And he is among the biggest names among contemporary literary novelists, if a grumpy one.  What hope, then, for those as-yet unknown writers?

Have a look at the video, and then have your say in the comments.

17 thoughts on “Philip Roth says the novel is screwed

  1. Donigan

    I think Roth is right, and maybe his time frame is a bit long. I have said as much on my blog as well as on yours. The way I put it is reading literary novels, reading books at all, will be like the small group of purists who seek out record LPs and avoid digital music formats. It will happen, I will be dead — good.

  2. Tom Conoboy

    Roth was saying the same thing back in 1963, when he said the author of fiction couldn’t compete with reality. Hasn’t stopped him pumping out the novels in the intervening forty-plus years…

  3. Court Merrigan Post author

    Donigan, I’m not sure the music analogy quite works, because music is the same music whatever format it appears in, LP to YouTube. But I take your point.

    Interesting, Tom. Figures. Once a pessimist, always a pessimist, I suppose. I’ve read a couple Roth novels, and was vastly underawed. Maybe he’s just worried people won’t be reading his novels in 25 years.

  4. Charlene

    I doubt it. Tom Conoboy hit the nail on the head.

    The older I get, the more suspicious I become of any man who is willing to take himself so seriously.

    I’m fully convinced each individual human is equal parts jackass, saint, and devil. The people who are aware enough to recognize the proportion of jackassery in their own personalities are worth listening to–the rest, best taken with a grain of salt, a little lime, and some good tequila.

  5. Lucifer St.Âne

    I just gave The Road to two different people, both of them in their early 30’s. After having the book for two weeks each, they both gave it back, neither of them getting more than 30 or 40 pages into it. They are both heavily into computer media. The obvious path to go down for a contemporary writer is too create an online interactive ongoing story based on magic, or vampires, or sexy imbecilic college kids, that will engage young pc users starting about 12 years old. Sort of like a fictional Truman Show. Charge a nominal fee to get involved and watch as your bank account goes into hyperdrive.
    Or scribe away at a highly personal piece of art.

    It is an age-old struggle. Radio drama died. The broadsheet died. Modern opera and modern classical music should be killed. So far books have soldiered on, helped by the very pop infection threatening to eradicate them. Every time someone buys Dan Brown they get one step closer to Phillip Roth or maybe that guy who wrote the book about Kansas-Missouri war that you once told me about. Your uncle says the exact same thing, except about the existence of man himself. They say it about the Coho salmon that used to run three feet deep in the American River. I don’t think the question anymore is if but when. Maybe it never was or never can be “if”. Man and art are transient.

  6. Donigan

    Tom Conoboy left a comment on this subject on my blog and I posted a long response to it there.

    http://doniganmerritt.typepad.com/donigan_merritt/2009/10/compare-and-contrast.html

    Regarding Tom’s comment above, Roth and his generation of American novelists (Mailer, Jones, Yates, Conroy, et al) are infamous for popping off, but in the end were fine writers all who, in spite of their fears and anger, were condemned to write, as are all good writers. I would say better to judge them (and us all) by what we do rather than what we say.

    To Court, one can only say the music is the same music if one has never heard music reproduced from vinyl grooves through a diamond needle and pumped through a thousand dollars worth of speakers. Not to mention live concert performances (not the kind kids scream all the way through, but the kind were audiences sit with enraptured attention).

    To Charlene, you make generally a good point, but like all generalizations, sinks the ship because the ensign is ugly. Roth can be hilarious and self-deprecating, especially in person, but besides simply entertaining himself by popping off to dumb questions, sometimes one gets really serious when confronting something one thinks is really serious.

    To Lucifer, I am in my 60s and stopped reading The Road also in less than 40 pages, mostly because it was repetitive. McCarthy writes the same thing in the same way over and over. Twice was enough for me. This is not to say that McCarthy isn’t a fine, stylistic novelist, because he is, and that might be why young pixel-oriented readers don’t get very far. As to the rest of your first paragraph, I agree completely.

    Everything is transient, or to quote John Irving, we are all terminal cases. I think the point is more accurately made by saying that, in this case, styles and culture in art are transient, while the desire for style and culture endure.

    And I doubt very much if reading Dan Brown gets a reader one sliver of word close to Phillip Roth, any more so than listening to heavy metal rap is likely to open the door to Mahler.

    Would that it could …

  7. Lucifer St.Âne

    There is no accounting for taste…

    Just kidding, Donnigan. You make some very good points. I have to say that not reading The Road is a big mistake if you are a fan of literature. It is profoundly different, stylistically, from his other works, and the storytelling is, for lack of any six-cylinder words, really really good. Give it a shot some other time, maybe.

    While I have some thoughts about the transcience of art and culture, I don’t think I could lay them down coherently enough on a blog. With several glasses of whiskey and a long evening I might be able to. In general I agree with what you wrote.

    My sister was a non-reader who went from listening to books on tape of Steven King and John Grisham to reading A Spearate Peace and All the Pretty Horses. So it can happen.

    Very enjoyable bloggage, Emendator!

  8. Court Merrigan Post author

    Thanks for the great comments, everyone.

    Lucifer, the Missouri-Kansas book is Ride With The Devil , by Daniel Woodrell. Coincidentally enough, I just watched the movie version. The movie was terrible. The book is above average.

    It seems as though there are two kinds of people in the world: those who like The Road , and those who don’t. I’m still mystified as to how anyone can be in the latter category, but maybe I need to re-read the thing with a more critical eye. I confess that in my 2 readings so far I let my emotions run away with me. I was just glad to be able to read a book where I could.

    I am not so pessimistic about the novel’s future. For at least two reasons: Harry Potter and Twilight . Of course both of these series are gossamer fluff of the first order, but, they have breathed new life into the book. Millions of kids have been made into readers on account of those books, and at least some of them will be looking beyond the shiny shelves of Dan Brown et al at the front of your local book superstore.

    Now, the form they look form may indeed be slanted to the electronic. But it will still be words, it will still be narrative, it will still be text. Donigan, I just have to disagree with you that I require an LP and hi-fi speakers to properly listen to, say, The White Album . Tinny computer speakers and half a bottle of bourbon work very well to render sublime music sublime. Even without the bourbon.

    The quantum leap happening now, I think, is that stories (and video, and music, and etc) can now be put up in the cloud. Meaning they are no longer reliant on a particular physical format, like a Beta tape, or a floppy disk, or even the codex. Content can be seamlessly integrated, and as long as the internet remains up, that content remains accessible. In an age when everything can be infinitely copied digitally, there will no longer be an “rare” editions of any book. It’s just that you will have to download it to a digital device of your choice. If POD technology continues to advance, that will include a paper book.

    In short, while I appreciate your viewpoints, Donigan and Lucifer, I do not think (and I certainly do not hope) that you are right that the novel is doomed. I agree that the literary novel will likely continue to occupy a marginalized place in society, but that has been the case since at least the time of Faulkner. I also think the following for literary novels will remain somewhat larger than that of Latin poetry. Christ, I hope so!

    There have also been some good comments on this post at TeleRead. Go on over and have your say there, too, if you’d like. Oh, and Donigan, I’m headed over to your blog for more comments, too.

  9. Court Merrigan Post author

    Oh, and Donigan, great John Irving quote, btw. Is that from The World According to Garp? (His only really great book, in my view.)

  10. Donigan

    Court, you seem to be blending the medium and the message, as if the message is not affected by the medium. I believe it is.

    Generational gaps have always existed, although in recent times (the last century) these gaps seem to be both widening and increasing in speed. Every generation takes a step forward ahead of the the preceding one. From time to time, a generation takes two steps. Now it seems like each new generation is leaping. This is too fast for me and I am not able to predict where someone lands who is taking leaps as opposed to what will be a step or two into the future.

    Our brains rewire when necessary, cut new pathways of thought and ways of thinking. That is one way the medium alters the message. I believe there is an alteration of perception in what reading is between print on paper and electrons on a screen; there are tactile differences arising from the object itself, differences in how our eyes transmit into thinking, and importantly, how a reader thinks about what reading is. Over time, a generation or two at these speeds, a book may seem as quaint and cutely nostalgic as a morse code telegraph.

    Another way the medium changes the message is in music. One must have sat in a room with a superior speaker system, listening from a distortion free, amplified record, to see how the music is altered and distorted by a squeaky little speaker the size of a quarter, making music from digitalized Xs and Os, to understand how the composer intended and hoped a listener could perceive his work. Even The White Album becomes so powerful that one tempts a heartache from hearing the glory of it reproduced as perfectly as possible without sitting in a chair ten feet in front of the band playing it live.

    Now I will wander off back home and see what’s there.

  11. Court Merrigan Post author

    Donigan, I’m stealing from the arguments of others here, but: Socrates thought books and writing were terrible, because of the effect it would have on people’s memories and ability to extemporaneously philosophize. He probably had a point: the art of public elenchus probably reached its zenith right there in Athens, in the 6th century BC. But we would have nothing like Western culture as we know it without writing, and ultimately, the codex as we know it. You are absolutely right about how are brains can be rewired. The act of reading requires different mental pathways than the act of public debate. And surely the act of reading via pixels requires different mental pathways than reading via paper. The question is whether that is a bad thing. Socrates thought it was; but I’m not so sure. I think it might just represent the next quantum leap in human understanding and hence, human art. All rendered possible by advances in the technical arts.

    The novel is a form of technology as surely as a iPhone or a papyrus scroll is. It was made possible by technical advances. Today’s technical advances are coming at a dizzying speed, and the implications and consequences are far from clear. The novel is likely to undergo radical changes, and that very soon. A future “novel” may be no more recognizable to us than Meditation on First Philosophy would have been to Socrates. The good thing is, we won’t have to wait centuries to see how it shapes up. I’d say it’s likely we’ll be beginning to see where this all going well within your lifetime, Donigan.

    Shit, man, I think that’s exciting as hell. If you’re there when the changes happen, you might get to shape some of them.

    The medium shapes the message, the message in turn shapes the medium. And somewhere in there our poor monkey brains are trying to keep up. I find it all deliriously fascinating.

  12. Charlene

    That’s where I would say you’re wrong, Donigan. It is entirely possible to take yourself too seriously and still have moments of being humorous/self-deprecating. There are plenty of pompous jerks who have a decent sense of humor and a quick wit. Those things don’t innoculate against the sort of thing I’m talking about. What I’m trying to get at is simply that I appreciate (and place a higher value on) the commentary of individuals who seem to strike a good balance in life (i.e. equal parts gloom and joie de vivre).

    Also, self-deprecating humor is a big part of the Jewish persona/schtick, much the same as British comedy relies on sarcasm and American humor trends toward anything/everything scatalogical.

    A Jewish author being self-deprecating is about as surprising as a tiger having stripes.

    In short, this guy may write satire at times, but he’s still a sourpuss. I really don’t think people are going to stop reading novels. Will they stop reading “literary novels” as defined by an increasingly pretentious cadre of appointed “connoisseurs”? Probably. But, I’m disinclined to call that a bad thing.

    Then again, I’m just a filthy prole and haven’t been gifted (afflicted?) with enough good taste to say otherwise. :)

  13. Donigan

    I would guess you don’t like Roth.

    Your generalizations do not indicate much sense of humor, it seems.

    Finally, it is not exactly about your taste, or not. Literary fiction is a publisher’s term to indicate all fiction writing (mostly novels) that cannot be marketed and sold within a predesignated genre, for example, mystery, thriller, adventure, young adult, romance, crime, and so on. There is a subset of literary fiction called mainstream fiction. These are not intended to be indicative of quality or matters of taste, but how publishers go about trying to place and sell books.

    So I suppose the increasingly pretentious cadre of appointed (self-appointed?) connoisseurs are for the most part employed in the sales and marketing departments of publishing companies. And that, Charlotte, is indeed a bad thing.

  14. Donigan

    Oh, and are you a Brit? I wonder since you are inclined toward sarcasm, which you say is a British kind of thing.

    Since I’m an American I should try to find something scatological to illustrate my point … give me a few minutes to come up with something.

    Here we go …

    I take myself as seriously as a dog sniffing new shit.

  15. Charlene

    I have a sense of humor, I just don’t like Roth. I think that can occur and not rip a hole in the frabic of the universe, but one never knows…

    I don’t understand the hype. There are plenty of award-winning authors that I like, but there are far too many that just leave me baffled.

    For what it’s worth, I know the difference between genres. I’m referencing the ones who get stamped “Grade A Fine Literature” (i.e. on the fast track to tormenting college and high school students everywhere) by the establishment or bestowed with the mantle “Finest Writer Alive Today”. Failing to see the vast difference in quality between some of what is Chosen and what is Junk, I’m forced to say the whole thing is pretty damn arbitrary. Every bit as arbitrary as most prizes for art and other forms of human expression.

    Sarcasm isn’t exclusive to Brits, just pointing out that it plays a big role in most (not all) of their humor. They have their poo, slapstick and sex jokes, too, but you’ve got to admit Americans have really raised it to an art.

    If I come off a little irritable, I guess it’s just the result of Prognosticator Fatigue. I think it’s a new syndrome. So many people calling the future, so much of the time. Once, just once, I’d like to hear an interviewer ask a question like “What is the future of XYZ?” and get the response “How the f@@k should I know?”

    It seems like you can’t pick up a newspaper, watch an interview or documentary without hearing someone trying their hand at fortune telling. So far I’ve learned that we’ll be flying around in cars, starving in breadlines, downloading the Complete Works of Shakespeare directly to our frontal lobe through new Bio USB ports, meeting the antichrist in person, turned into a facist state by hordes of evil socialist children brainwashed by Obama, dying at the hands of Mayan Alien Planets, vacationing on the moon and/or drowned and floating in the ocean with untold thousands of dead polar bear carcasses.

    Aside from not liking his writing style (or interest in placing himself in his stories), I’m instantly ready to grab my pitchfork when I hear yet another prognostication during an interview–from anyone.

    Sure, it’s pathological, but I just want someone for once to say “I haven’t got a clue”. Even couching the whole guess in less certain terms would make it easier to take.

    As for sniffing shit, I’m not sure I’m catching the metaphor. My pug is a studied shit-sniffer. Mainly, I’m guess, because the ones that pass muster typically end up as a snack. He gives the appearance, at least, that he thinks it is serious business. Maybe the joke’s on me, though. Stranger things have happened, right?

    (P.S. I’m American, and I don’t think less of humor because it involves a bodily function. That can take skill, too. Even if the skill itself is a matter of suppressing the gag reflex long enough to get a laugh.)

  16. Donigan

    It seems from the thread of bitterness holding all this together that at some point you were forced probably through educational necessity to read a lot of books you really didn’t like.

    Personally, I don’t mind people looking toward the future and wondering about it, and I don’t especially mind a bit of prognosticating, at least if it comes out of one’s experiences combined with one’s understanding of the past and how it reflects on the future with a tad of reasoned analysis.

    I can offer this recommendation, it’s what I do. Don’t pay any attention to stuff you think is bogus. Might save you from charging off waving your pitchfork.

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