Philip Roth reflects on novel's decline and "Nemesis"

NEW YORK (Reuters) - American novelist Philip Roth dislikes e-books and the distracting influences of modern technology, which he feels diminishes the ability to appreciate the beauty and aesthetic experience of reading books on paper.

Author Philip Roth poses in New York September 15, 2010. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

The author, celebrated for such novels as “The Human Stain,” believes there is nothing anyone can do about it. Yet, even as he shares his belief about new technology, it is hard not to consider that by writing shorter books -- something he has done regularly since his 1959 debut “Goodbye, Columbus” -- Roth has long been ahead of his time.

“It is a shame. It is also what is happening, and there is nothing at all to do about it,” the 77-year-old Roth told Reuters, discussing the changing publishing landscape in the digital age during an interview for his new book, “Nemesis,” which is released in the United States and Britain on Tuesday.

“The concentration, the focus, the solitude, the silence, all the things that are required for serious reading are not within people’s reach anymore,” he said.

Beginning with film in the 20th Century, then television, then computers, and more recently social media networks such as Facebook, the reader is now utterly distracted, he said.

“Now it is the multiple screens and there is no competing against it,” Roth said.

Roth does not plan to buy any kind of e-reading device such as Amazon’s Kindle. “I don’t see what the point is for me,” he said. “I like to read in bed at night and I like to read with a book. I can’t stand change anyway.”

Among the publishing chatter about a possible impending death of the popular, longer novel and the growth of novellas due to e-readers, “Nemesis” -- clocking in at about 56,000 words -- is Roth’s latest in a cycle of short novels.

You see, Roth noted humorously, “I am with the times.”

Yet the economical form of “Nemesis,” about a young playground director’s internal struggle as his community is besieged by a polio epidemic, took root some eight years ago.

“I was curious if I could do it,” Roth said. “Condense and reduce and still carry a punch.”

Roth is best known for full-length novels such as his controversial 1969 book, “Portnoy’s Complaint” and the Pulitzer Prize winning “American Pastoral” with favoured narrator Nathan Zuckerman. So, to work on a shorter narrative, he consulted old friend and novelist, the late Saul Bellow.

“I talked to him, and said ‘How do you do it? And he didn’t know any more than anybody else. So we just laughed.”


“Nemesis,” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is set in 1944 and sees the author revisit his hometown Newark, New Jersey, a place fascinating to Roth due to its decline.

“The ruination of Newark restored my interested in it,” he said. Otherwise, “I would have forgotten about it.”

The subject of polio arose because Roth, considered a master of capturing American identity and anguish, made a list of U.S. events he had lived through and never written about.

The neighbourhood of Weequahic, where the book is set and where Roth grew up, did not actually experience a polio epidemic, but as a boy, Roth was still frightened of the then incurable disease, which a childhood friend contracted.

The book is filled with seemingly innocent U.S. traditions such as serving fresh lemonade, but World War II looms ominously over the story. And the panic shown by communities towards polio serves to remind readers that “Nemesis” could be any modern-day tale of fear from diseases such as AIDS, Roth said.

It is mostly a grim and fatalistic novel, albeit with one staple Jewish nose gag, which the author said he couldn’t help: “Allow me to have the nose.”

Roth said tying all his recent short novels together is the theme of “cataclysm.”

“It seems to me that is what life is all about; chance,” he said. “Old men write books about cataclysms ... the intimacy with mortality makes your mind turn a certain direction.”

Early reviews have hailed “Nemesis” as a triumphant take on fate, chance and mortality, but the prolific author does not ponder accolades. For him, writing is about facing each book as it comes and worrying day and night how making the storytelling jigsaw fit.

“Writing a book is solving problems,” he said. “You don’t think about your place in this or that, or prizes, or reviews, or anything. It’s the last thing that’s on your mind, it’s the work that is on your mind.”

If he allows any credit for his work, it would be the “disciplined atmosphere” of his upbringing which helped with the structured routine of writing. But he downplays his own fate of being called America’s greatest living novelist.

“The child in one is delighted by a lot of things, but the adult knows better,” he said.

Reporting by Christine Kearney, editing by Mark Egan and Bob Tourtellotte