Philip Roth is not my favourite writer, but he is surely a good one. One of the post-war American giants – the generation of Bellow, Updike, Pynchon and Morrison – Roth has given Tina Brown a wide-ranging and exclusive interview on the future of books and literature. He’s in full “Lion in Winter” mode, but perhaps that’s not surprising.
To read a novel requires a certain amount of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don’t read the novel really. So I think that kind of concentration and focus and attentiveness is hard to come by – it’s hard to find huge numbers of people, large numbers of people, significant numbers of people, who have those qualities.
Nor will the Kindle rescue the form.
The book can’t compete with the screen. It couldn’t compete [in the] beginning with the movie screen. It couldn’t compete with the television screen, and it can’t compete with the computer screen. Now we have all those screens, so against all those screens a book couldn’t measure up.
I think Roth is dead wrong. Cultural pessimism often is (the pessimists of 1930’s Europe are an important exception). Technologies come and go, and so do artistic genres and movements with them. But who’s to say that what replaces them is not just as good, if not perhaps better, than what went before? The advent of the novel polished off the epic poem within a generation, but also paved the way for the great era of 19th Century novelists like Balzac and Dickens. In our time, the success of long-form television drama like The Wire and Mad Men shows that audiences still have a hunger for complex, difficult, detailed stories – as Benjamin Schwarz notes in his masterful critical dissection of the first two series of Mad Men in the Atlantic.
The full interview is here.