Dispatches | July 05, 2011

I’ll say this for him: whatever we may think of Philip Roth, the dude can still make headlines. First there was the noise about the Man Booker International Prize when one of the three judges walked in disgust when Roth was awarded the prize. Then this: in an interview with Jan Dalley, the literary editor of The Financial Times, Roth, who writes books (mainly novels) for a living, said that he no longer reads fiction. In more detail, here are Roth’s comments on why:

“I’ve stopped reading fiction (Roth said). 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.”

How so?

“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.

Not a very enlightening response from Roth, is it? You can, and should, read the whole interview with The Financial Times here. It’s a solid if unspectacular piece that is a polite interview with a subtext of admiration (it’s not quite as crazy as this GQ interview of Chris Evans, which is one of the more bizarre things I’ve read in a magazine recently, even for the celebrity profile genre, but hey, I digress). Roth’s claim to not read fiction anymore seems a bit calculated to me, and it might be worth remembering that this is an author who is smart, thoughtful, and has humor and wit in abundance. Still. The refutation of fiction has also been made by Cormac McCarthy, Will Self, Lev Raphael, and Karl Weber, to name just a few, and given how commonplace this type of response has become – “I don’t read fiction!” – it should give us pause.

In her article on this subject at Salon.com Laura Miller noted that some of this might come from, well, men of a certain age, that when people get older, they have less interest in introspection and that the vast majority of fiction isn’t about people in their eighties or nineties. Lev Raphael wrote that as he and his friends have grown older, they have developed a stronger interest in history and biography and stories that deal with broader sweeps of time. Essentially, both Raphael and Miller are saying that the anti-fiction reading comes from older adults who have simply moved beyond fiction, as if fiction is the sort of juvenile thing we will all eventually leave behind, like toys or security blankets or imaginary friends.

The common response to this has been, essentially, that real life is more interesting than fiction. And this response is foolish.

I assume that this comes from some idea that because the book is “real” or “nonfiction” or whatever it may be called, this somehow makes it better than fiction. This train of thought is misguided. All books are, in some sense, a construct. There are things (people, events, moments, dialog, etc.) that are left in, and there are things that taken out. Do any of these “I don’t read fiction” critics actually believe that everything in a biography is wholly true? The complete story? Books have beginnings, middles, and ends: something must always – always – be left out. It is more accurate to say that it is the best and most complete narrative that the author can construct (“blazingly honest subjective truth“?) in order to tell the story the best story the author can write.

Real life is filled with the mundane. Lots of not interesting things happen in real life. That’s why we make up stories. Or write other people’s “true” stories. There are plenty of day-to-day events that happen to us that are not worthy of a story; just being “real” or “true” isn’t good enough. Everyone goes to the grocery store, right?

What artists do is bend. We make our own realities and put them together in some kind of framework that makes it approachable, engaging, provocative, interesting, whatever word you want to use here. There is always a frame. How “real” is reality television? Not very, right? Sure, they are “real” people on screen, but does any viewer believe that what she or he is watching is genuine or authentic? And can’t the channel be flipped, your television turned off? How real is that? Once we start thinking about the layers of constraint and filtering and framing that must be done to any piece of entertainment – whether it is a reality television show, or a massive biography, or a painting, or a sculpture, or whatever other medium we could cite – the question of “is it real or not?” seems too reductive and simplistic.

This is not to get into a deep philosophical argument on what is real and what isn’t: my understanding of philosophy isn’t much more sophisticated than The Matrix. My concern is that too many of us are spitting out fiction (or whatever else we might reject: I’ve heard this claim about poetry, too) without really thinking through why we believe fiction isn’t worth our time. We demand what is “real” without actually giving any thought to what that means, and such bombastic statements are lazily destructive.

Good readers and good writers read widely. They don’t discount books because of what category they fall into. There are wonderful things to experience, regardless of genre, and we’d be foolish to dismiss entire categories of books wholesale. Let’s read (and think and feel) and embrace the possibilities. Openness is what allows artists and audiences to break barriers we didn’t even know existed in the first place. And why wouldn’t we want to be there when that happens?

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.