Unlike Philip Roth, I’m still reading fiction

A tiny tempest, perhaps, but a tempest nevertheless, when renowed and prolific novelist Philip Roth announces he no longer reads fiction, and this with no further explanation than “I don’t know. I wised up…”

So it’s fallen to others to puzzle it out, to wonder, to agree or disagree. As, for example, Laura Miller at Salon, who finds that Roth isn’t alone in the company of fiction quitters and suggests it’s a function of aging, and Russell Smith at The Globe and Mail, less willing to let Roth off the hook, who says it may be, subtly, the desire to be rid of “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.

Some decades ago when I was trying my own hand at fiction, timidly, with little experience and tons of insecurity, I picked up the notion — advice given by some writing guru, no doubt — that one ought to stay away from novels while working at one’s own. So I did, more or less, at least while in the heaviest throes of the project. I’m not sure, looking back, if that was good advice or not. I might have amended it, at least, to eschew only the writers I didn’t much admire (though read for various reasons) and allow myself to bask in the style of those I liked and wanted to emulate. Smith is surely right to wonder how a writer of novels can’t be reading them. “Reading fiction,” he says, “is still the best rehearsal for writing it.”

Miller’s piece draws a distinction between fiction and non-fiction — the latter offering “instruction or information” and fiction, “an experience.” I’m not sure it’s quite that clean. Both fiction and non-fiction can offer instruction and information — true stuff, if you like — and an experience. Either can feel easy, or effortful. So much depends on the book itself.

So, I’m reading non-fiction — and lots of fiction. If aging’s the issue, I’ve still got some good years of stories to go before I reach 78. And I’ve got an impossibly long way to go to reach his output, at which point, perhaps, one’s own stories reel endlessly in the self and are all the nourishment one needs.

I’m reading to rehearse, because I’m working on another novel. I’m reading for information, instruction, and experience —  and for stretching understanding and love (which I spoke of in “Some reasons why I write”). I’m reading to exercise my admiration and fight envy — to practice a kind of community life, as it were, by reading the books of my peers or betters, say in a geographical zone or genre. And, I’m reading for the sheer pleasure of story.

One can’t possibly keep up, that’s true. But it would be just as hard to stop!