Sunday, 8 November 2009

I'm sorry Mr. Roth, but I have to disagree

Philip Roth. Photograph: Orjan F Ellingvag / Dagbladet / Corbis

I saw this article about 10 days ago but didn't have the chance to properly comment on it until now for one reason and another. I just haven't been able to stop thinking about it though because I disagree so very strongly with it.

It's not often that I find myself in disagreement with great authors and people I hold in very high esteem but I guess there's always an exception. Basically, Philip Roth, the American writer who has written around 30 novels and been awarded numerous literary awards has said that he thinks that within 25 years the novel will have become a fringe cult, something only enjoyed by a select few. And that's an optimistic time frame, he thinks, due to the mass onslaught of media these days. With options like the movies, the internet, iPods and suchlike who'd want to pick up a humble book?

Well, me, for one. But I very much doubt that I will be the only one. The one thing that convinces me most strongly about this is what I see every single time I walk into a book store here in Taiwan. Taiwan is arguably one of the most technology-saturated nations on this planet - more than half of the population at any given time seems to be "plugged in" in one way or another and yet what do I see when I walk into the bookstores? Hoards of people with their nose buried in a book. Never before in my life have I had to pick my way along the aisles of a bookstore so carefully - folks here think nothing of finding themselves a wee corner and tucking into whichever book they happen to have picked up - the place is strewn with reading bodies! Moreover, when I catch the train into Taipei, half of the carriage is reading something, more often than not a novel.

Image credit: Here

How, then, can this claim that the novel is going extinct be true? It has survived the advent of the radio, the TV and the internet. In actual fact, the internet has probably done more to promote and facilitate the activity of reading through the invention of blogs and websites such as Bookcrossing. Book blogs abound out there, all of them written by avid readers who would choke on the very idea that books and reading could ever be pushed aside by technology. In fact, for a laugh I googled "book blogs" and "technology blogs" and found that the book blogs outweighed their technological cousins nearly 2:1. It's not a scientific study, but it's an interesting indication.

I guess the thing I found the worst about this claim was that Philip Roth is one of us - one of the bookworm club - and here he was, seemingly attacking the thing we all love the most. Maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he was having one of the post-publication panics he talks about in the article. Who knows? One thing is for sure though - I look forward to being around 25 years from now and seeing the printed word still going strong.

What do you think? Do you agree with Roth or do you think the novel will prevail? Add a comment or vote in the poll!


  1. Fantastic post! Yours is the kind of blog I've been searching for and have had all kinds of trouble finding. Seems like almost all the book blogs out there are about romance or fantasy or "urban fantasy" - whatever that means.

    Anyway, regarding Roth, I also disagree that the demise of the novel is being greatly exaggerated. However, it's hard to disagree with the following: "The author believes that the concentration and focus required to read a novel is becoming less and less prevalent..." Still, even if novel readership declines, and it seems clear that may be happening already, there will always be a strong, vocal backbone of novel lovers to keep novels in print for a long, long time!

    And I agree with you - it does hurt to see Roth so pessimistic about his own medium. Like you, I'm a huge, huge Roth fan. I'm going to choose to chalk this up to post-getting-screwed-on-the-Nobel-once-again frustration. Or, maybe, he's just trying to stir up a bit of controversy in advance of next year's vote...

  2. I'm with you! If there were such a dearth of people that want to read books, why has the blogging community gotten so big? It seems to me that there are an even greater number of YA books than ever. Which is probably helped by the onslaught of other media. If you can get kids hooked on a book, then they'll want to see the movie or vice versa. Story telling in book form has been around for centuries. I don't see it going away any time soon.

  3. Greg - Thanks very much! I'm glad you like the blog :) I hadn't considered the controversy angle - good thought!

    Lisa - I know what you mean! How on earth could the blogging community get so big if books are going to be off the radar so soon? Thanks for the comment!

  4. Can I just say - I think Roth is crazy.
    I mean, I love him, I really do. But he's also crazy if he thinks novel readers are a dying breed.
    I'm with you and Greg. It's so sad to see him so pessimistic. It makes me wonder if I'm missing out on something.
    And I'm not sure where he got the stats that novel readership is declining. Everything I've read pretty much says that, with teens at least, novel reading is up. More teens are supposedly reading today than ever before.
    I can't see them just suddenly stopping that. I know when I was a teen there was so much peer pressure to not read.

    Anyhow, that's what I've got to say. Hopefully Greg's right, and he's just trying to stir up a bit of controversy.

  5. Brizmus - well said! It really is a crazy idea. But the more I think about it the more I'm inclined to agree with Greg's theory of Roth trying to spark a controversy.

    I love that kids are reading more and more these days. Interesting what you say about peer pressure and reading - I have to agree. I remember in my 2nd year of high school my English teacher asked us to keep a reading log - I was about the only one who had more than 3 books (I had at least 25 by mid-year) on the list and was teased mercilessly about it by some of my classmates. I hope it's different now for young bookworms!