June 26, 2011

Philip Roth: "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 wised up ..."

45 comments:

Virginia said...

That fiction is dead is an assessment that's been around a while. It's not nearly as good anymore. Why? Has the talent fled to other fields, such as nonfiction? (Talking pre-Internet here) Is the internet just putting the final nail in? Is there nothing to write about? Writers of fiction can talk about their craft in such interesting and engaging ways. I knew a mother and son who were both writers. The mother wrote fiction, the son nonfiction. Their debates about autobiographical writing vs fiction were very interesting. Still, not such interesting fiction is actually being produced. Am I wrong?

Carol_Herman said...

You mean there's something worth reading after Portnoy's Complaint?

serfer1962 said...

History is so much more exciting the fiction, especially American history

TWM said...

I love fiction, and there's plenty of good stuff out there, especially from e-published authors who otherwise would be unread and unknown.

Still, history is exciting as serfer says, although it depends on the historian-author.

Brian said...

I always thought the guy was kind of a jerk-off.

Jana said...

There is plenty of good genre fiction out there for those who are inclined to find it. I will agree that the critically-acclaimed literary fiction is highly overrated.

edutcher said...

Reality is getting so weird, fiction is tame by comparison.

Not to mention the fact that novels haven't really caught the public's imagination for about a half century.

Or it could just be that there aren't enough people who read that well any more.

(thank you, William Ayers)

WV "amess" (no kidding) Make up your own.

Revenant said...

I seldom read fiction because non-fiction is usually more interesting.

Ralph L said...

Never bad-mouth the product!

gadfly said...

After reading Portnoy's Complaint Jacqueline Susann said:

"Philip Roth is a good writer but I wouldn't want to shake hands with him."

Bad! bad! bad! bad! bad! Any which way that you look at the joke -- and so goes the life of a depressed old man.

mariner said...

It's a big world out there, and if I read only non-fiction full-time for the rest of my life I'd barely be able to grasp a tiny speck of it.

With the exception of a few favorite classic sci-fi novels, I no longer intentionally read fiction.

Peano said...

I've stopped reading fiction. I don't read it at all.

When you consider the towering classics that have survived centuries of critical scrutiny, Roth's statement is all the more breathtaking in its narrowness and stupidity.

I can tell you one fiction author I won't read again. With the treasures stored up from generations past, I won't be missing anything.

ET1492 said...

Do those of you who reject fiction literature also reject fictional movies and television programs?

AllenS said...

If you wrote about what is going on in Wisconsin lately, someone would probably consider it fiction.

I just bought a hooded sweatshirt from the Althouse collection of stuff. Is this new? Or did I just notice it?

Jube said...

Makes total sense to me if you're a fiction writer who doesn't want to become derivative.

However, if you can't find fiction worth reading in general, it's because you don't know how to find good books - not because none are out there.

My theory is that he refused to broaden his fiction reading, and found the same plots over and over. Anyone will get bored if they stick in the same veins for too long.

edutcher said...

ET1492 said...

Do those of you who reject fiction literature also reject fictional movies and television programs?

Take a look at the ratings of the networks these days.

Apparently so.

PS Allen, it's been there for a while, although Miss Ann has had sufficient other activities to occupy her mind that she hasn't called our attention to it for some time.

ET1492 said...

It looks like non-fiction television is more popular than fiction.

Take a look at last week's broadcast TV ratings.

Here are the cableratings.


But last week's box office results show that fiction still dominates in Hollywood.

windbag said...

Up until about three years ago, I almost exclusively read for information, not for pleasure. I made a deliberate effort to read fiction, interspersing the classics that my incompetent English teachers/professors failed to require. I would still rather read a dictionary or atlas than a novel (or anything by McCollough), but I have enjoyed some excellent fiction. I've also read a bunch of crap.

If something doesn't hold my interest past 40 pages, I'm done. I simply walk down the aisles of the library and pull out random books. If I like one, I read other stuff by the same author.

Fiction these days seems to be written with one eye on a movie deal. Classics developed the character, with the plot as a backdrop. Contemporary fiction seems to use the characters as the backdrop to the plot. Action is key.

Sixty Grit said...

Why read fiction when you can read the New York Times, right?

KenK said...

Hopefully Roth won't be writing any more of it either. Read his stuff in college and it sucked out loud.

ricpic said...

Don't any of you think that Roth may be pulling your collective leg? I do.

Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

Apart from economic numbers coming out of Washington, I haven't read fiction in about 40 years.

There's too much real stuff to read.

rcocean said...

Portnoy's complaint is (according the Modern Library) the 52nd greatest novel of the 20st Century.

Which kinda explains why most of us stopped reading fiction.

rcocean said...

BTW, 90 percent of all Fiction is bought by women.

Which probably explains...

So many things.

Andrea said...

Well, I've never read any Phillip Roth. Is he any good?

That's it. I got nuthin'.

Freeman Hunt said...

Do those of you who reject fiction literature also reject fictional movies and television programs?

I used to read fiction almost exclusively, but now I rarely read it at all. I adore fictional movie though.

There's a time investment difference. If I watch a bad movie, I've usually spent about ninety minutes, and I've probably watched it with someone else, so that leads to discussion, and it's a social activity. If I read a bad book, the time spent is significantly longer, and the activity is solitary.

If I'm not going to know more about actual things by the end of the book, it has to be extremely good to warrant that investment.

Freeman Hunt said...

I adore fictional movies though.

yashu said...

Of Roth's work, I've only read Sabbath's Theater. I loved it. NB it's filthy-- an apotheosis of smut-- & potentially very offensive to some women (like that judge who would've refused him the prize, but not me).

It's also beautiful, hilarious, tragic, profound, great.

Oligonicella said...

Jana --

"I will agree that the critically-acclaimed literary fiction is highly overrated."

And that there bolded part is the reason.

Oligonicella said...

Shakespeare wrote fiction.

ET1492 said...

Who reads Shakespeare?

Lucius said...

Roth's just saying that because he's too busy *writing* and dying--he's putting out another valedictory novel every year.

Besides, there's Anxiety of Influence.

As a non-boomer, I feel like being a smartass about it, since this history vs. fiction thing keeps coming up (yes, one of Ann's hobby-horses).

Some people are just too wrapped up in those Father's Day books. It's *codgery* of you, people.

I hear a lot of the commenters here-- and okay, maybe Ann too-- channeling Jesse Ventura's "Predator" 'I ain't got *time* to bleed' machismo. That deep, self-satisfied throatiness: "I haven't got *time*, rrrr, for fiction!"

You know, just because David McCullough takes a shit and prints it, doesn't mean it's Tacitus.

Reams of "history" are printed every year-- including a good number of bestsellers--which are forgetable crap. Even malarkey.

And spinning 'new' interpretations, yadda yadda, that have been the bread and butter of historians for generations. Like every time an Englishman writes a new book on Napoleon (the *definitive* volume, natch). Hint: he was just like *Hitler*!

Tell your buddies at the hardware store. Meantime, I'm gonna go fetch my Dollhouse cheetah-print thong off the clothesline and read some goddamn Tessa Hadley.

Beth said...

Good for him. I wised up and stopped reading Roth's fiction decades ago.

Freeman Hunt said...

I don't see anyone writing that they read non-fiction without discrimination.

ricpic said...

Roth's just saying that because he's too busy *writing* and dying...

Roth's "busy" dying? It takes effort to die?

Lucius said...

@Freeman Hunt: Yeah, but-- what discrimination?

Seldom do I hear anybody enthusing about dragging down the Plutarch off the shelf.

In all sobriety: most of this stuff is just Tom Brokaw Goes To Print. "Historians" endlessly aping the manners of television; all that Cecil B. DeMille pseudo-gravitas, that *uncleanliness* in the intellectual sense.

Even those hefty WWII tomes: Antony Beevor or "Absolute War". Fascinating stuff, yes. But tear it apart long enough and you ask-- does it really get to something new? Does it even model the real excellences that all writing-- that *history* writing-- should exemplify?

This chest-beating "I read some history the other day and it was great!" is a constant through many threads, and I feel the need to throw a conscientious satiric salvo against it. These books are fine to read for an evening, or whatever it takes to get through them.

But guess what: they don't *stay*. In fact, their arguments are as liable to fall apart as the plots of bad fiction.

I know the style well enough: that endless anecdotage; "now Truman ballsed up and said to him--"; "now here's another sob story of a Russian artist, this time in theatre, who also fell afoul of the NKVD . . ."

All true, perhaps. Part of our world. But this *preening* over reading it-- this silly lack of skepticism over the individual facts; this *facility* in yielding wholeheartedly to the latest new interpretation (ie whatever the Book Barn put out on the shelf/your daughter bought you for Father's Day/Tim Russert's 2nd cousin thrice removed went on tv and told you to read.

I'll fall back on "Absolute War" one more time: heavy, fascinating, couldn't have a more tragic subject matter, or an epic one.

But I rate it a dude. It takes up again and again the campaigns and makes them incomprehensible. It takes the tragic stories of many individuals and, time and again, has to tell us them, and makes of them an anecdotal sob story. Stalin didn't know the half of it: a million people's deaths,--each told individually-- that too, is a statistic.

Read fiction. We'll be smarter.

Anyway, there's Thucydides. Old men reading McCullough is like teenyboppers reading Libba Bray.

Oligonicella said...

ET1492 --

"Who reads Shakespeare?"

People who can.

themightypuck said...

Gibbon, Macaulay and Frazier (The Golden Bough) are in the public domain and all beyond awesome. Mostly I read fiction though. The funny thing is that the fiction I read and enjoy is genre stuff that would be looked down upon by most of civil society. Recently I read Master of the Senate by Caro and Nixonland by Perlstein. Both are highly readable but I was a bit disappointed by Caro.

Tim said...

I tend to read things that are not tedious and don't tell me lies.

Given that, Tristram Shandy is, for example, the best autobiography I've ever read. And every word of it is true.

Almost Ali said...

If only a single work of fiction were allowed to survive, which work would it be?

ET1492 said...

"Who reads Shakespeare?"

People who can.


I've read most of Shakespeare's plays, mostly in school but some on my own, and I've read a lot of other important literature because I thought it important. Plus, I enjoyed it. But when I break out literary references, I usually feel like Dennis Miller on Monday Night Football.

Most people just don't care about literature, and I don't really blame them. There's not much money in being well-read.

ET1492 said...

If only a single work of fiction were allowed to survive, which work would it be?

The Complete Harry Potter

Richard Dolan said...

"I've stopped reading fiction. it don't read it at all. ... I've wised up."

Don't believe everything you read. Especially if it's by a famously self-fashioning writer.

Skookum John said...

I don't read any fiction either. I don't listen to much music and I never go to art galleries, either. I've been to the opera once in my life and fell asleep.

If the fine arts disappeared from the face of the earth, it would affect me not at all. The real world is far more interesting. Euler's Identity and the Maxwell Equations impart more truth and beauty than all the artists who ever lived.

Almost Ali said...

The Complete Harry Potter

Good selection, but in the end I'm afraid the choice would be the Bible.