Fiction in the Age of E-Books

For better or for worse, the age of the e-book is upon us. Analysts estimate Americans will buy on the order of 6 million e-readers this year—and by 2014, an estimated 32 million people will own one. What does the proliferation of Kindles, Nooks, iPads, and other e-readers portend for the publishing industry? What does the e-reader mean for writers, for storytelling, for the place of fiction in the cultural landscape? We put these and other questions to Paul Theroux, who published his first Atlantic short story, “Two in the Bush,” in 1968 and his eighth, “Siamese Nights,” this past February, as part of The Atlantic’s Fiction for Kindle project. (These questions will also be the focus of a panel discussion featuring Theroux, Richard Bausch, and other writers at the Luminato festival in Toronto, on June 19.)

The Atlantic: How would you characterize the state of fiction today? Are we producing more or fewer good writers than in the past, and more or fewer good readers? How have the writing life and the reading life changed since you were starting out, 40 years ago?

Paul Theroux: Fiction writing, and the reading of it, and book buying, have always been the activities of a tiny minority of people, even in the most-literate societies. Herman Melville died in utter obscurity. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books were either out of print or not selling when he died. Paul Bowles was able to live and write (and smoke dope) only because he wrote for Holiday, the great old travel magazine. Nor are writers particularly highly regarded. A few years ago, Boston—a city of writers and thinkers—needed to name a beautiful bridge and a graceful tunnel. The first was named for a recently deceased social worker and civil-rights activist, the second for a baseball player. This happens in most U.S. cities, partly from ingrained philistinism and also from the non-reader’s fear of books, of writers in general. Many aspects of the writing life have changed since I published my first book, in the 1960s. It is more corporate, more driven by profits and marketing, and generally less congenial—but my day is the same: get out of bed, procrastinate, sit down at my desk, try to write something.

TA: You’re an inveterate world traveler. Is literary culture more healthy or less so outside North America? What geographic differences do you see, and how have those changed over time?

PT: Literary life used to be quite different in Britain in the years I lived there, from 1971 to 1989, because money was not a factor—no one made very much except from U.S. sales and the occasional windfall. And many of us were reviewing books or writing pieces for the same poorly paying magazines. Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens, Jonathan Raban, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, and I—all well-paid today—were regulars on the New Statesman.

Japan, Germany, and India seem to me to have serious writers, readers, and book buyers, but the Netherlands has struck me as the most robust literary culture in the world.

TA: What does the advent of the e-reader mean for reading—for the health of narrative storytelling as a form, for the market for fiction, for the future of books? E-readers certainly make it easier to tote lots of novels and other texts while traveling. But don’t we lose something—in sustained concentration, or in a sense of permanence, or in the notion of a book as an art object—in the migration away from the codex?

PT: Movable type seemed magical to the monks who were illuminating manuscripts and copying texts. Certainly e-books seem magical to me. I started my writing life in the 1940s as an elementary student at the Washington School in Medford, Massachusetts, using a steel-nibbed pen and an inkwell, so I have lived through every technology. I don’t think people will read more fiction than they have in the past (as I say, it’s a minority interest), but something certainly is lost—the physicality of a book, how one makes a book one’s own by reading it (scribbling in it, dog-earing pages, spilling coffee on it) and living with it as an object, sometimes a talisman. Writing is one of the plastic arts, which is why I still write in longhand for a first draft. I can’t predict how reading habits will change. But I will say that the greatest loss is the paper archive—no more a great stack of manuscripts, letters, and notebooks from a writer’s life, but only a tiny pile of disks, little plastic cookies where once were calligraphic marvels.

TA: Does the migration to e-readers increase access to good stories or diminish it?

PT: Greatly increases access. I could not be more approving. But free libraries are full of books that no one reads.

TA: What has the Twitter-ization of our attention spans, and the hyperlinking of our storytelling, and the Google-ization of all our knowledge meant for imaginative literature as an art form and a vehicle for transmitting ideas?

PT: In a hyperactive world, the writing of fiction—and perhaps the reading of it—must seem slow, dull, even pedestrian and oldfangled. I think there is only one way to write fiction—alone, in a room, without interruption or any distraction. Have I just described the average younger person’s room? I don’t think so. But the average younger person is multitasking. The rare, unusual, solitary, passionate younger person is writing a poem or a story.

TA: You just finished a book tour: Did you find that e-reading, the varying ways of reading, are affecting your readers, or your audience, in any way?

PT: I liked being able to say that anyone could download my work, or my Atlantic short story, on their Kindles. “You want to read me? Log on and download”—I liked leaving them no excuse. Non-readers are full of the dumbest excuses.

TA: Do you think of yourself primarily as a novelist, or as a travel writer, or as a journalist, or none of these? What are you working on now?

PT: I am a fiction writer, who loves traveling and has managed to make my travel into a narrative form. I am writing a novel at the moment—with my right hand. With my left hand, I am compiling an anthology of the books that have thrilled me.

TA: Your work has been noted, perhaps unfairly, for its misanthropic view of the world. Yet in a recent NPR interview, you said that the secret to being a successful traveler is, in essence, to be polite. How do you reconcile your misanthropy (if that’s a fair characterization) with your politeness?

PT: I am probably a crank, as most writers are. But far from being a misanthrope, I hold the view that you get through life best by understanding that most people have it much worse than you do—really difficult lives, almost unimaginable hardship. So I grin like a dog and wander aimlessly and am grateful for my life.

TA: The inevitable question: What’s your advice for a young person who wants to grow up to become a fiction writer?

PT: Notice how many of the Olympic athletes effusively thanked their mothers for their success? “She drove me to my practice at four in the morning,” etc. Writing is not figure skating or skiing. Your mother will not make you a writer. My advice to any young person who wants to write is: leave home.