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Published: Fri Jul 1 2011
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Shadowboxing: Novelist Eats Babies!

“Roth Cuts Fiction!” bannered the headlines across the front pages of dailies worldwide. Well, not exactly. Actually, it was a paragraph on page three of the Arts section of the June 28th Times: “Philip Roth Gives Up Reading Fiction.” But for fiction writers everywhere, it was as though the Pope had stood before the altar in St. Peter’s and announced, unapologetically, that he had lost his faith in Jesus. He would, however, keep saying Mass on Sundays and alternate Wednesdays.

Philip Roth is one of the most celebrated fiction writers of his generation, author of some thirty books, mostly novels. He has received two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, two Pen Faulkner Awards, and a Pulitzer, to give you just the short list. His novels and stories have inspired a handful of films, with rumors of more to come. The Philip Roth Society’s website offers a Twitter feed so fans may stay abreast of the Master’s doings.

This isn’t the first time Roth has voiced doubts about the future of his art. Before this, however, his diagnoses placed the malaise outside him: “The book can’t compete with the screen,” he said in an interview a few years back. “I doubt that aesthetic literacy has much of a future here,” he remarked elsewhere. Apparently the disease has spread and the doctor himself been infected.

Roth isn’t the only practitioner afflicted. Last year, recovering novelist turned nonfiction maven David Shields published Reality Hunger, a bricolage of aperçu about the way the urgencies of contemporary life are changing how we read-and, by extension, what we think about and how we think it: “something has happened to my imagination, which can no longer yield to the earnest embrace of the novelistic form.”

From where does this crisis of faith spring? Is it sour grapes-no Nobel for Philip, not even a measly Pulitzer for David? Certainly announcing the death of a centuries-old art is sure to generate a flurry of obits and stimulate the curiosity of professional mourners. The warning signs have been with us a while. The French declared their concern right after the Second World War when novelist Robbe-Grillet insisted that telling stories about “characters” as if they were real was a dead end. In the sixties, Roth himself published an essay in which he worried that fiction was having a hard time competing with headlines.

Who doubts that our heavily mediated lives leave us wanting genuine nourishment? Yet despite the thousands of self-help volumes, true confessions, myriad testimonials, memoirs, and reality-TV shows, our hunger has not been appeased. Could it be because the vocabularies for intuiting and intimating the complexity of reality need imagination to serve as an activating agent, the yeast that enables order and meaning to arise from the mess of life’s miscellanies?

When I was an undergraduate, the literary critic Lionel Trilling visited our school. He’d been invited there by my literature prof, Robert Maurer, who had also been Roth’s teacher several decades earlier at Bucknell. (Roth even dedicated a novel-Our Gang-to him.) During the Q&A the 68-year-old Trilling announced that he no longer read fiction. Fiction, he explained, is about “becoming” and he was now mainly interested in “being.” At that point Maurer turned to a classmate of mine and whispered “May I never cease being interested in becoming.”

Like ennui, obesity, and AD/HD, “reality hunger” appears to afflict mainly first-world countries. One of the writers Roth introduced to the West when he edited Penguin’s Writers from the Other Europe series, Czech novelist Milan Kundera, had a clear sense of fiction’s purpose. In a series of powerful essays composed over decades, he argued that the work of fiction is no different from that of science: its job is to add to the store of human knowledge. During the eighteenth century the novel became the medium through which “the West” redefined the individual, with all his newly won “inalienable” rights and freedoms. We have become who we are because of the self-reflection it has encouraged. Is it possible that we believe we are done with becoming, that our evolutionary journey has reached its end? Are we poised to turn away from soul-making? Does that sound like a good idea to you? I’m with Robert Maurer.

Askold Melnyczuk is the founding editor of AGNI and contributes a series of essays called “Shadowboxing.” He is professor of creative writing at UMass Boston. Excerpts from his anti-memoir in progress have appeared recently in The Threepenny Review and Epiphany. The Epiphany excerpt, “Turbulence, Love,” was cited as Notable in The Best American Essays 2010. His third novel, The House of Widows (Graywolf Press), won the Editor’s Choice Award from the American Library Association as one of the outstanding books of 2008. His second novel, Ambassador of the Dead (Counterpoint, 2001) was called “exquisite, original” by The Washington Post, and his first, What Is Told (Faber and Faber), was a New York Times Notable Book for 1994.

In 1997 Melnyczuk received a Lila Wallace-Readers’ Digest Award in Fiction. Winner of the McGinnis Award in Fiction, he has also been awarded grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. He has published stories, poems, translations, and reviews in The New York TimesThe NationThe Partisan ReviewGrand StreetPloughsharesAGNIPoetry, and The Boston Globe. His poems have been included in various anthologies, including The McGraw-Hill Book of PoetryLiterature: The Evolving Canon, and Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets. He has edited three volumes in the Graywolf Take Three Poetry Series, as well as a volume of tributes to Father Daniel Berrigan and a livre d’artiste on painter Gerry Bergstein. He also coedited From Three Worlds: New Writing from Ukraine.

He previously taught at Harvard University, the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, and Boston University, where he edited AGNI until its thirtieth anniversary year in 2002. A research associate of the Ukrainian Institute at Harvard, he has served on the boards of the New England Poetry Club and PEN New England and has been a fellow of the Boston Foundation. In 2001 he received PEN American Center’s biennial Nora Magid Award for Magazine Editing as well as PEN New England’s “Friend to Writers” Award.

Melnyczuk founded AGNI in 1972 as an undergraduate at Antioch College. (updated 9/2018)

See him interviewed on New England Authors.

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