I have been mulling over the news that Philip Roth no longer reads fiction. In a profile in the Financial Times, there is the following exchange:
As we talk, Roth is perfectly courteous, perfectly charming, perfectly defended. Half a century of celebrity, since the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969 brought him money and a turbulent kind of fame at the age of 36, has made him a master of the polite no-go sign. The conversation I’d longed to have with him since I first read him many decades ago, a conversation about fiction itself, died an early death.
“I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did.”
“I don’t know. I wised up … ”
And with those three words he gave me a long look from those fierce eyes and then a significant glance at my notebook, as if to say: that’s what I want you to write down.
So what did he wise up about? On a superficial level, and probably long ago, about the inadvisability of giving anything away when answering journalists’ questions, that’s for sure.
Aside from this moment, the profile is otherwise redundant. All of the information has been so thoroughly catalogued before that the accumulation of words seems unnecessary. No wonder that this statement by Roth received the most attention. But aside from this fleck of gold in an otherwise dry creek bed, the statement seems, if not declared, at least edited to be supremely tweetable. That is, mildly scandalous, gnomicly brief, invested with the shelf life of organic yogurt. And it dutifully sprouted its week’s worth of online mold.
But I’ve kept thinking about it because I think, in its truncated outlandishness, it so disregards Roth’s actual writing. He may no longer read fiction; he may in fact find reading fiction a waste of time. (Geoff Dyer has a great line somewhere where he says that all men eventually only read military history.) This statement actually isn’t that much of a surprise. In interviews over the past several years, as Roth has become an old man, Roth’s said that he’s rereading the classics, perhaps for the last time. A premonition of death seemingly haunts every move he makes–the books he writes, the ones he reads, the plots of his novels, etc. So one doesn’t really expect for Roth to have an informed opinion on that story collection by Miranda July, or the amount of depth to be plumbed in Téa Obreht’s novel.
(Incidentally, I have’t read either of those authors either, but I feel the atmospheric contemporary pressure to have done so.)
But the statement seems to negate what he has done with this life, the way that the news Salman Rushdie is going to work on a TV show and that he thinks TV can be panoramic and sociological in ways the novel no longer can (old news, that), somehow seems to negate the very validity of fiction.
But Roth’s fiction is thoroughly devoted to the fictional, to the idea of the fictional. Or to be more clear: his works are all about making stuff up and about characters who make stuff up, or read books and try to live according to those books, and suffer because of the miscalculation. So much of his mid-career work (the three novels and one novella that comprise Zuckerman Bound) are about the life of an accidentally celebrated author. And his late work takes on various American totemic myths and braids them with individual lives. And one of his best books, The Counterlife, is all about lives re-writing each other, except here it’s not new characters corrupting other characters, but the same characters re-written in multiple ways. The book is a novel bursting into several different novels, characters playing out different versions, different fates. That is, his fiction has been primarily dedicated to this kind of energy, a character’s ability to fictionalize. All of which is a long way of saying that Roth himself may no longer read fiction but the fiction he’s actually written is argument enough for fiction’s value. And not just because it’s “good” fiction, but because the novels argue on behalf of the inescapable need for people to fictionalize. It’s metafiction in the deepest way. It’s not the lighter John Barthian side of fiction, purely investigating the structural conventions of narrative.
I would say that Roth treats fiction on a religious level if he hadn’t stated so clearly that he considers God himself the most supremely harmful fiction.