Jeffrey Brown: New Series Will Explore the Next Chapter of Reading


It’s six years ago now that I interviewed Philip Roth about his novel, “The Plot Against America,” and his life as a writer. Near the end of that conversation, I asked Roth how he saw his own role, the role of a writer, in our society. That led to the following exchange:

PHILIP ROTH: Your role is to write as well as you can. You’re not advancing social causes as far as I’m concerned. You’re not addressing social problems. What you’re advancing is… there’s only one cause you’re advancing; that’s the cause of literature, which is one of the great lost human causes. So you do your bit, you do your bit for fiction, for the novel.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why do you think it’s become one of the great lost causes of our time?…

PHILIP ROTH: My goodness. Um, oh, I don’t think in 20 or 25 years people will read these things at all.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not at all?

PHILIP ROTH: Not at all. I think it’s inevitable. I think the…there are other things for people to do, other ways for them to be occupied, other ways for them to be imaginatively engaged, that are I think probably far more compelling than the novel. So I think the novel’s day has come and gone, really.

His voice was sad, his hand patting his new novel as he said, “these things.” It was a moment that struck a chord with many viewers. People still sometimes talk about it when they approach me in public.

But was Roth right? After the formal interview, we talked more and I recall pointing to all the wonderful, new international writing that was being translated and published in the United States in the last decade. Surely, that showed a continuing vibrancy to the novel, to literature? Roth didn’t budge.

The globalization of literature has continued since then, of course. Even more, the world of books and reading has continued to swirl and change like never before, driven by technology (Do *you* like the Kindle?) and shifting cultural patterns (Does your child read in his or her spare time? Do you?). Publishers, bookstore owners, editors, authors and readers all have something at stake. I see at least two competing narratives, two “stories,” if you will, about the present state and future of reading and books. The pessimistic story is the one Roth and others tell. And there’s plenty to support it: studies that show fewer people, especially fewer young people, reading books; the loss of book review sections in daily newspapers; the closing of so many independent bookstores; and so on. But there are also positive signs, including the many sites and communities of book lovers that have sprung up online. And there is this — call it a “human need”: the continuing compulsion that some people have to tell stories and the continuing thirst of others to take them in. Our new series — it will be an occasional series over time — will explore some of what’s going on. Our plan going is to talk with a range of players who work in and think about the world of reading and books. These conversations and this series will be found [on Art Beat]( We invite you to send us suggestions of people we should include. And we very much want to hear your own ideas, thoughts and comments. Our first conversation in this series is with author Rick Moody and editor Andy Hunter, whose online literary magazine, “Electric Literature,” recently published a Moody short story via Twitter. [You can find it on Art Beat.](