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.