That’s how Alison Flood in the Guardian characterizes Philip Roth’s thoughts about the future of the novel. (The adjective is redundant, isn’t it? I mean, doesn’t “cult” — in that use of the term — imply “minority”? Also, Flood calls this Roth’s “prophesy” when she means “prophecy.” But enough picking of nits.)

Asked whether the Kindle and other e-readers might help the novel survive as a pastime with a few more adherents than Latin poetry, Roth replied, “The book can’t compete with the screen. It couldn’t compete [in the] beginning with the movie screen. It couldn’t compete with the television screen, and it can’t compete with the computer screen . . . Now we have all those screens, so against all those screens a book couldn’t measure up.”
But isn’t Roth confusing the future of the book — that is, the codex — and the future of the novel? He doesn’t seem to have noted that the interesting thing about e-readers is that they are screens with novels on on them.
And I might also ask this: if the book couldn’t compete with the movie screen or the television screen, how does he explain his own very successful and very lucrative career?


  1. Roth, I believe, is simply suggesting that the screen captivates a far greater number of eyes than the book. The book still has readers–hence his own lucrative career. But the cultural reach of the book has never
    as that of the screen (in the 20th century).

    Many serious readers look to e-readers as the great hope for the novel. The problem with this hope (which I believe Roth is hinting at) is that it assumes that the novel will survive its transition to the screen intact. Today, novels are still written for print and only transfered to the screen as a secondary product. But what will happen when novels begin to be written for the screen? I believe it will be difficult for publishers, marketers, and (increasingly) authors to resist the temptation to turn the novel into an interactive, multimedia experience—complete with embedded videos, non-linear jumps, hyperlinks, "social media," etc. Given that the form of the codex was so decisive in shaping the European literary tradition, it would be naive to assume that the medium of the interactive screen with have little influence of the nature of the works it "displays".

  2. The words "been as wide" mysteriously disappeared from the first paragraph of the previous comment. (Note the blank space.)

  3. One of the arguments that I've been trying to make on this blog is that there are screens and then there are screens — not all of them have the same properties, function in the same way. Reading a book on a dedicated e-reader is a very different thing than reading one on a laptop or an iPhone. I think I need to say more about this. . . .

  4. Reading is intrinsic to the human condition; it isn't going anywhere, and in previous centuries there were just as many diversions and the audience for literature was probably the same as it is now. I think the real argument is the one that Chabon makes, which is that literature ceded entertainment to the emerging forms of media from the 1930's on. So superheroes, rock and roll, sitcoms, video games, were phenomenons that were created outside of the literary community. I think this was a pretty natural development, but novelists should just write truth and stop whining about people not reading them. It's obvious that the Beatles are going to have a wider audience than Larkins poetry; but that doesn't make one intrinsically better than the other.

  5. But don't you think it's likely that dedicated e-readers will be a very short-lived phenomenon? Or at least as rare as a cell phone that does nothing but make phone calls?

    It won't be long until the person who pays $300 for a Kindle will instead pay $300 for a lighter version that has all the functionality of a laptop. That and/or the e-reader will be subsumed into the cell phone/camera/computer that many people carry.

    The book, on the other hand, will be around much longer. It will be a long time until book-quality e-readers cost $5 or $10, which, I think, is the cost level where people could treat them like books – buying them on a whim, loaning them to friends, not caring much if they lose them, throwing them against the wall if the author says something unendurably stupid, etc.

    And once the e-reader is $5 or $10, it probably won't be very long until the full-function computer is $5 or $10. So again, I think you're not going to have very significant chunks of time in which people are reading books on electronic machines that only read books. So I think Anonymous's concerns about e-books looking more and more like the web is worth considering.

  6. But don't you think it's likely that dedicated e-readers will be a very short-lived phenomenon?

    I think this may very well be correct, Michael. That the Kindle is virtually useless for anything except reading books is what I like about it — indeed, if it were up to m I'd take away even its rudimentary web browser — but I suspect that that won't be the majority opinion. If I'm still reading digital books in five years I'll probably be doing so on my Mac Tablet — and therefore being constantly distracted by email, messaging, Twitter or its equivalent. . . .

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