A dean of American novelists just announced publicly that reading fiction is for fools. What has the response been from his peers? Nothing so far. According to a June 24 Financial Times interview, Philip Roth now reads history and biography instead of fiction. Asked why, he says "I don't know. I wised up."
Can we ascribe Roth's statement to his well-known eccentricity? Unfortunately, no. Roth speaks for the general readership , as increasing numbers of readers have turned to non-fiction. The utility of spending one's time reading facts can't be disputed in the Information Age. That humanity believes we have little need for the humanities these days cannot be in serious doubt either.
Considered a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature, Philip Roth might be expected to stand as a partisan for the value of reading fiction. One could inquire, again somewhat flippantly, whether Roth has nothing left to learn from Melville, Woolf, Tolstoy. I'd argue that Roth has not absorbed the full richness of Cervantes, or of the greatest of Cervantes' heirs.
Nor have any of us, whether readers or writers. But why stop trying?
Readers are turning away from fiction for good reasons, many of them having to do with writers. With some exceptions, contemporary writers have not made available the best of Quixote's infinite possibilities to readers. How might they do that? Through passionate essays that confront greatness and make it our own, and through the creation of ambitious new novels that benefit from that confrontation.
Instead, as society shunts them aside, novelists and other artists seem to have accepted a peripheral, decorative function. Roth's old friend Milan Kundera refuses that position. He considers art vital to our humanity, and continues to publish impassioned essays on the inexhaustible depths of Kafka, Cervantes, and Broch, as well as on more contemporary writers such as Cesaire, Chamoiseau, and Marquez. I've never read essays by an American novelist with as much vitality and insight into the novel as Kundera's, as Vargas Llosa's, as Calvino's, as Woolf's.
Mightn't it behoove every novelist, when readership is dwindling, to extol the virtues of our medium strenuously, with greater boldness and vigor than ever? What was the last contemporary essay or novel you read that made you think "The ambition of this amazes me. This person has taken on Melville, or Joyce, or Woolf. This is an attempt at a masterpiece."
Joshua Cohen's WIT has some of that hubris. We know Jonathan Franzen has it, and have learned that Jennifer Egan has it. David Foster Wallace had it. Grace Krilanovich has it in ORANGE EATS CREEPS, though she expresses it less overtly, with more subtlety than some. There are other examples. But show me the novelist who reads brilliantly, and I'll show you the form's best defender, and potentially one of its greatest writers.
Is there anything less productive than a leading novelist pronouncing useless all of imaginative fiction? Perhaps only our failure to refute him thoroughly, emphatically, ceaselessly.