A Millennial’s Defense of the Novel; or, Why Philip Roth Is Wrong

November 28, 2012
Urban reader

It’s painful to hear people talk about my generation. The “millennials,” according to the critics, are a generation of addicts, our thumbs permanently scrolling through the flashes of text provided by Twitter, the ostentatiously antiquated photos of Instagram, and the pretend sociality of Facebook.

I am twenty-one years old, and, apparently, I have no attention span. 

That’s what I’ve been told at least. And, no doubt, there’s truth in the statement. But, as Bob Dylan once croaked, his face contorted in a postmodern sneer, “All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie.” And all these truths about attention span, addiction, and other data wrenched from polls in order to create overarching generalizations about us youths add up to a lie akin to any other monolithic generalization about any other group of people. 

So, now that I have your attention—you blog perusing middle-agers—let me talk about what I really want to talk about.

Is the novel dying? Since we Reddit readers can only consume text that comes with a shiny blue link, it seems natural. Philip Roth, in an interview in 2004, augured as much: “I don’t think in twenty or twenty-five years anyone will read these things at all. I think it’s inevitable. I think there are other things for people to do, other ways for them to be occupied, other ways for them to be imaginatively engaged, that I think are probably far more compelling than the novel, so I think the novel’s day has come and gone.” It seems the classic disposition of the writer to feel as doomed as Captain Ahab, and writers certainly have been predicting the death of the novel since the early twentieth century. 

But other people disagree. Whatever their argument—one YouTube responder to Roth’s interview asserts that the novel certainly is not dying because “libraries are full of them!”—these bringers of goodwill, intent on cheering the downcast faces of literary nerds everywhere, believe that, though the novel might not be consumed at the capitalistic pace of yonder year, it’s not yet rolling around the hospital on a gurney.

Alas, despite naturally having the doomed disposition of the former, I fall into the task of arguing the cheery point of the latter. And though I could provide you with examples of the length of today’s popular books—take a few minutes and flip through the Game of Thrones series, for just flipping through those books does, in fact, take at least a few minutes—or the studies that show the eighteen to twenty-four age range being the highest percentage of Americans to have read a book in the past year, I would rather go about proving my thesis in the least scientific way possible.

Roth’s quote is particularly helpful for me because it concisely sums up the exact opposite of what I believe. For my main argument is that the experience of reading a novel is so much more gratifying than the experience of any other engagement of the imagination, that as long as children are forced to read a novel at some point in their schooling, there will always be people who yearn for that experience, who need it, because it entertains them so much more thoroughly than any other medium of entertainment.

For example, let us go about this completely backward, and take a look at entertainment that is not a novel: why, if our attention spans are 140 characters long, are television dramas such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men so entirely successful? If our attention spans are shortening, why are the shows that renounce the fast-paced titillation of network television the ones that are growing in popularity? It is precisely because they take their time. They develop their characters. Walter White’s complete transformation in Breaking Bad would have been meaningless if the show had not devoted so much time in the first couple of seasons to creating a character that is convincingly nothing like the character in the latter seasons. Mad Men, in its painstakingly slow rendering of its multitude of characters, is able to successfully provide a window into the past that feels accurate. If the Millennials are long-boarding down this slippery slope into a ditch of instant gratification, why are the most successful shows the ones that buck this trend?

But now, to actually respond to Roth, while these shows do as good a job developing characters in great detail as any other medium outside of the novel can, the fact remains that they still can’t do it as well as a novel. After watching Mad Men, I know Don and Betty Draper pretty well. I have watched them struggle through a lot of issues, and I can sometimes guess their responses to whatever situations Matthew Weiner, the creator of the show, might throw at them. They are like an aunt and uncle that my parents talk about ceaselessly. But Patty and Walter Berglund, from Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, are like my closest friends. The relationship I have with these characters transcends just knowing how they might react to certain situations: I know not just that, but something deeper—the thought process they will use to confront their difficulties. Franzen has made me privy to their interiority, and only when you become the closest of friends with someone are you able not just to predict how they might act in a given situation, but to know what they are thinking at any given time. And, as a human being, this is an experience that I crave. For whatever scientific or philosophical reason you want to posit, I desire to know other people, in as much depth as possible. And I believe that no other medium will ever allow the access to the interior knowledge of other people which the novel provides, and that, no matter the generation, the craving for this knowledge will never abandon us.

If you have attentively made it to the end of this post I applaud you. Don’t worry, next time I’ll be sure and pare it down to a Tweet.

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