DETAILS: Do you ever get a sense that the country is basically just falling apart?
UPDIKE: Well, maybe a country is always falling apart, at least in the age of newspapers, when they’re always telling us the bad news. But no, I have certain faith in the U.S. Constitution and the American attitude, which is a sort of openness, a willingness to learn.
DETAILS: Can there be an Updike today, a Hemingway, a guy who turns out volumes over a lifetime?
UPDIKE: There is a make-it-big-or-you’re-out mentality in publishing. And publishers are not, unlike when I was young, willing to carry an author who never makes it big—does respectable work and has a small following. But people read less as a nation, so maybe there’s less pie to cut up. Less pie to divide, and that explains or helps justify that. So no, I don’t think you’re going to see another Hemingway or even another Mailer. I just don’t think there’s the ability of the writer to grab the reader’s attention—but it’s the sort of thing that could be proved wrong tomorrow. Somebody could come along who produces books that people feel compelled to read.
DETAILS: Is the novel dead, as an art form?
UPDIKE: Ever since the movies came along, there have been attractive and easier ways of telling a story. There are certain things that the movies can’t do that a book can do, however, and I would hope that there would be a market for people who want that sort of satisfaction. A book has its advantages, after all. You don’t have to line up at a ticket booth, you can carry it with you almost anywhere, and you can read it in bed with ease.
DETAILS: So does the novel need to be rethought or re-imagined?
UPDIKE: In the 20th Century, there was quite a lot of formal experimentation, and you can’t really be more experimental than Ulysses or Gertrude Stein or parts of Faulkner, so presenting a new invention has its limits. But I think any young writer, setting out, has had a set of different shaping experiences than his parents or grandparents and that he’s bound to write somewhat differently if he tried to authentically render what life means to him. Beyond that, I think formal experimentation—like leaving off the quotation marks and all that—the utility of what really matters is that your sense of truth changes from generation to generation and that will produce a certain amount of innovation in any art, certainly in the art of fiction.
DETAILS: Do you ever watch reality-TV shows, like American Idol?
UPDIKE: I don’t! I get kind of embarrassed for everyone and get upset because they all involve the cruelty of being eliminated. Much of the glee of it seems to be the joy of seeing someone put down. I don’t know—I could be wrong about that.