Why Roth Is Wrong About the Novel
Paul Benjamin Auster is an author and poet who has gained acclaim over a diverse 30-year career, in which he has published many volumes of poetry and essays as well as 20 novels, now widely translated. His work also extends to the translation of the work of foreign writers, including French writers Stéphane Mallarmé and Joseph Joubert. He is arguably best known for his three experimental detective stories, collectively referred to as The New York Trilogy ("City of Glass," 1985; "Ghosts," 1986; "The Locked Room," 1986). His latest novel, "Invisible," was released by Henry Holt and Co. in October 2009. His first marriage was to the writer Lydia Davis in 1974; his second to the novelist and essayist Siri Hustvedt in 1981. He has two children, Daniel and Sophie, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Question: Philip Roth says books are dying. Is he right?
Paul Auster: Philip has been talking like this for decades now and the fact is, he keeps writing books and people keep reading them. And I just, I disagree strenuously. Human beings need stories and we're looking for them in all kinds of places, whether it's television, whether it's comic books or movies, radio plays, whatever form, people are hungry for stories. Children, I mean, think of your own childhood, how important the bedtime story was. How important these imaginary experiences were for you. They helped shape reality and I think human beings wouldn't be human without narrative fiction.
Okay. Perhaps, you know, the market, the way things are moving, fewer people are reading novels than previously. But still, if you walk into a bookstore, there are thousands upon thousands of them there. And they wouldn't be in print unless somebody was buying them. Libraries are crammed with novels as well, and people are reading them. And I don't think it's ever going to dry up because two, the novel is such a flexible form. It's not like a sonnet, it's not fixed. You can do anything you want with it. It's just a story that you tell within the covers of the book. But all bets are off, there are no rules. And that's why I think the novel is constantly reinventing itself.
And society continues to reinvent itself. Every historical moment needs the stories to be told about it. So much as I admire Philip Roth, I just think he's wrong about this.
Question: How will literature change in the Internet age?
Paul Auster: Well, I know it's changing already, or at least there are new things that have been happening. But it even goes back 10, 20 years now, hypertext, Bob Coover doing all these things with computers and multiple narrators of stories, multiple authors of stories, I should say. I don't know. I don't know. I'm not a man deeply interested in technology. It eludes me. I confess I don't even have a computer, I don't have a cell phone. But I did read recently about a new digital magazine doing very short stories that people can read on their telephones, maybe this is interesting, maybe not. I think people are trying out ideas with the new technology and it's too early to say where it's going exactly. But again, whether it's digital or paper, it doesn't matter. It's words that somebody is reading and getting an experience out of that reading. That's all that really matters.
Recorded on November 5, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen
Philip Roth believes books will soon be dead. Paul Auster respectfully—and strenuously—disagrees.
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