Friday, July 8, 2011

Operation Puppetmaster

Sometimes when I skim the cursor of my Macbook over the application icons at the bottom of the screen, I think I see the words "Philip Roth." It really says "Photo Booth," but for a second I get a thrill that someone has invented a Philip Roth app, or maybe he sent me a new kind of e-mail! My dream author made waves a while back with his assertion that the novel will die within 25 years, or at best reach a level of cultishness similar to that of Latin poetry. (I assume he means poetry in Latin, not poetry by modern Hispanic writers, but what do I know?) While there may be cause for concern about the future of the serious, literary novel, I think the future of the independent bookstore and traditional publishing is in more jeopardy than the form itself.  What with e-readers and vooks, it is sadly possible that fewer and fewer people will take the time to read novels the old-fashioned way. But I can't help but be somewhat more optimistic than Roth, if indeed he's being serious. He could just be trying to be provocative, or, as has been suggested, just can't imagine the novel surviving very long after he is dead.

His outlook could also be influenced by his stringent requirements for the correct way of reading novels. Apparently, according to Roth, if you take longer than two weeks to read a novel, "you aren't really reading it." I would love to be able to read any novel I like in less than two weeks. However, we aren't all living alone in cabins in the northern hills, with hours to do nothing but read or write in seclusion. Heck, it took me two weeks to read one-sixeenth of 2666. OK, that's not the greatest example, because (a) 2666 is 893 pages long, and (b) since it is so huge, it stays on my bedside table, not traveling on the subway or anywhere, so I only read it for the scant few minutes after I get in bed and before I fall into a deep, well-deserved sleep. Also, he is most certainly talking about serious fiction: I daresay Stephanie Meyer and Charlaine Harris have little complaint with their readership numbers. So it's a question not only of whether how people read novels lives up to his standards, but also would a particular novel itself meet his standard of what a novel should be.

But of course, Roth's job is not to encourage anybody to do anything, and I respect his attitude of not caring what anyone thinks about what he says. His job is to write. More recently, he said in an interview that he no longer reads fiction. That statement has launched a great deal of comment in the world of blogs and elsewhere, as well as speculation as to what exactly he meant when he answered "I wised up" when asked why. Some say it's a terrible thing (if true); others praise him for concentrating on his own writing. Still others admit they hardly read fiction any more, implying they are Roth-like in their own genius.

The answer is less interesting than why Roth would say something so attention-grabbing in the first place. He doesn't give many interviews, but when he does, he certainly seems to know how to get some play. Compare this interview to the earlier one I mention above, and it seems obvious that for every interview he makes it a goal to come up with one or two sensational proclamations that are sure to get him more publicity than if he just said the same thing over and over. He retains an attitude of not caring what anyone thinks about what he says by making such statements, but it seems to me underneath it all he is just toying with us, masterfully. First there's the implicit criticism of all us philistines for not reading enough, or taking too long to read novels, so that we are personally responsible for the imminent death of the form; then there's the admission that he no longer reads novels himself because he "wised up"! How could he not be messing with us? My guess is he does still read novels when he feels like it--but if you're Philip Roth, you can be exempt from all the usual novel-reading requirements. He probably does not really care when or if the novel is going to die, as long as he can keep writing. It's just fun to throw out a proclamation and see everybody run to their keyboards to try to opine about it. No matter; I'm  still waiting for that magical e-mail to come through. That should make everything perfectly clear.

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New York, NY, United States
Overeducated mom, addled by constant interruptions due to demands of family and dog, trying to read books and write coherent sentences about them. Luckily, yoga keeps me centered. Sharing my love of yoga through teaching helps make sense of it all. I have a yoga blog at Since 2015, it has been my pleasure to serve as a reader for Epiphany, a literary journal publishing fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and art; on Twitter as @epiphanymag.


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