Some months ago the novelist Philip Roth told an interviewer that he had stopped reading fiction. Here was arguably America’s greatest living novelist confessing that he had lost interest in novels and short stories, and much preferred to read history or biography.
“I’ve wised up,” said Roth. Beyond that, he did not elaborate.
I’ve been telling people the same thing for years. (Though, admittedly, I’m no Philip Roth, so they don’t really care.) I would have to think long and hard to come up with the title of the last novel I read. I know I started several, books praised by friends or a noted reviewer, only to find that I could not make it beyond the opening chapters. Twice I have attempted to slog through Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian only to be turned back exhausted by the fourth chapter. “There is probably a terrific story here,” I’d find myself muttering, “if only I could locate it in this dense underbrush of violet biblical prose.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if this lack of interest in the unreal wasn’t a symptom of middle age. I am not nearly as old as Roth, but I am probably as irritable and impatient. Novels strike me as diversions for the young. “It’s something they say a lot in publishing, apparently,” notes writer Zoe Williams, “that once you turn 40, you start reading biographies.” As a teen I could idle away months savoring fat novels like Look Homeward, Angel and Anna Karenina. I found their bulk in no way daunting. After all, I was young; I had nothing but time. Today, with more days behind than before me and the stacks of must-read books growing taller, I haven’t the time to dedicate to a Moby Dick, even if I wanted to…which I don’t. I think, too, that in my youth I believed novels possessed some almost magical power, that they had secrets to reveal about how to navigate through life’s tempests. I was wrong. Perhaps what I should have been reading was a good advice columnist.
Tom Wolfe has been predicting the imminent death of the novel since the 1960s, when it began its long slide into irrelevancy, shying away from its traditional purpose — a good story well told — to become a showcase for the author’s ego. In an attempt to halt that slide, and to jolt the novel back to its traditional roots in social realism, Wolfe wrote the masterful The Bonfire of the Vanities. It was a valiant effort, but the job proved beyond the abilities of one man. I couldn’t finish A Man in Full or I Am Charlotte Simmons either.
A MORE LIKELY REASON for the decline of the contemporary novel is the excellent work being done in the genre of nonfiction. Literary journalism, history, and biography may indeed illuminate our current predicament in ways that absurdist, minimalist, post-modernist, magical-realist — in other words, contemporary — fiction is unable to. Odd then, that among the elder literary statesmen (Roth accepted) the novel is still the reigning champ, while nonfiction remains a second-class citizen. The Nobel Prize may as well be called the Novel Prize.
I can still recall a time when novelists were expected to address the Big Questions. I am thinking of the great political novels of the twentieth century, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Borowski’s This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman, Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. This sort of novel lost favor with academics among whom it was considered insufficiently literary. And judging from the ideas held by most writers and academics, this was undoubtedly a good thing.
Still, there are some novels I am glad to have read, and would eagerly recommend to anyone. Everyone should read Catch-22 at least once in his life (I’ve read it twice), if only because it is the funniest thing ever written in any genre. I am also happy to recommend Slaughterhouse 5, Wise Blood, and A Confederacy of Dunces, for anyone who likes their literature with laughs.
Roth predicts that soon the number of novel readers will be in the range of Latin poetry readers. That seems a bit of an exaggeration. College students, at least, will still be forced to read novels. Though at this stage in my life, I have no idea why.