Philip Roth caused a minor Net storm last week after he was quoted in the Financial Times as saying he didn't read fiction any more. He wouldn't explain to the interviewer why not. All he would concede was, "I wised up."
This is odd for a man whose prodigious output of made-up narrative is so clearly seamed with the history of 19th- and 20th-century novelistic prose, so refinedly articulate, so thoroughly literary that it could have evolved only from proximity to other books. The highly artificial and conventionalized art of fiction doesn't emerge ex nihilo from a totally original brain; no art works that way. Art is spawned by other art. You don't decide to become a landscape painter by looking at a lovely landscape, but by looking at paintings of lovely landscapes.
The subsequent online discussion revealed a few more interesting authors who also made this bold claim to non-literacy. An insightful article in Salon, by Laura Miller, on non-fiction reading by fiction authors, quoted both Will Self and Cormac McCarthy as saying they couldn't be bothered with anyone else's novels any more – for no convincing reasons.
Self, in an interview with the BBC, at least tried to explain, saying reading "uses the same muscles that I use to write with." This is absolutely true and is exactly why so many writers exercise and expand their talent by reading; it's unclear why it would be a bad thing. Nor did anyone challenge Self as to why he was a prolific reader of novels as a child and at what age he abandoned the hobby.
Miller offers some possible explanations for these defiant abstentions. She suggests that when writers grow old, they have experienced enough to lose interest in the repetitive emotional lives of others, or they become too distracted by mental and physical ailments to concentrate. Reading fiction is extremely intellectually effortful, and one loses energy as one grows older.
All plausible, but Self is only 49 – I bet he is not contemplating an emotional retirement just yet. It's hard not to see an aesthetic manifesto behind some of these refusals. It's as if these authors, with their educated palates, simply can't stand the bulk of what's popular in fiction right now. And who hasn't had this reflex, on throwing aside another badly written yet bestselling book?
This is why confident people have been known to say, particularly after a couple of martinis at a party of awed undergraduates, "That's it, literature has been ruined by [rival author or school], I'm never bothering with [genre or national canon] again!" I've had this said to me, usually in the context of martinis, about Canadian fiction, British fiction, U.S. fiction, fiction written by men, fiction written by women, fiction about love, fiction about war.... It's an amusing way of proclaiming the superiority of one's tastes.
It's subtly ascetic too, as if the speaker is revealing a desire to be uncontaminated by what is popular and currently discussed with so much wasted energy. It comes from the same place as the desire to go and live in the country and switch off one's phone (as Roth does), to switch off the noise, the competition, the striving.
And to switch off all the insecurity that reading others' work gives a writer, all the reluctant admiration and envy and performance anxiety. Not to mention the sheer stress of having to keep up with all the brilliance being spewed out by thousands of younger people, all the must-reads that pile up like the Sunday New York Times, piles of guilt.
It's also true about the distractions of increasing physical and mental infirmity. I understand not being able to dig into a story because my eyes are bothering me or because the roof repair and a legal dispute with a neighbour are clawing out all available rations of concentration. This is a problem that grows worse with every technological advance. Everyone's reading has suffered from the constant availability of news and correspondence and entertainment.
But it is still true that the best stimulation of artistic production and inventiveness comes from immersion in a bath of other art: Art, unlike the undigested life we experience while at the bank or talking on the phone to lawyers, is a mirror in which one's own literary tics and dead zones are reflected. Reading fiction is still the best rehearsal for writing it.