Author News and Book Reports
Richard Russo and John Irving declare the novel alive and well and living in America
As speculation about the future of books rises to a fevered pitch throughout the publishing industry, two of America's bestselling storytellers, John Irving and Richard Russo, declaimed the notion that plots and novels are dead, regardless of technology, in an interview with New York Times book reporter Chip McGrath at a 2009 BookExpo America 'Literary Lions' panel. Russo began the interview by outlining his newest top selling novel, That Old Cape Magic (Knopf; August, 2009), and Irving followed with a synopsis of his forthcoming novel, Last Night On Twisted River (Random House; October, 2009). In a conversation about 'place' as a kind of 'character' in novels, Russo reflected on why he chose the world-famous Cape Cod as the setting for his new novel, and Irving gave his literary interpretation of the fictional landscape of Twisted River, New Hampshire, citing Herman Melville's warning that writers should not to seek please their audiences. Pressed to explain how they are so pleasing to their global fan bases despite writing long, challenging, and intricate stories about often painful and sometimes unpleasant events, Russo described living through the pain of his characters as anything but pleasurable or pleasing. Picking up on Russo's comment, Irving delineated 'pleasing' from 'entertaining' in storytelling, suggesting that to be entertaining a story has to be riveting, the most riveting events often being those which are the most disturbing. The conversation then turned to the irony of realism in fiction whereupon Russo dismissed academic writers like William Gass, Stanley Elkin, and John Barth as writers he had no interest in, preferring instead Dickens and Twain, while Irving gave a spirited defense of sexually explicit realism in his fiction. After Russo reviewed the books and authors he had been reading, and Irving issued an apology for all the books he had no time to read, the conversation turned to screenwriting. Russo reflected on how screenwriting gave him a whole new social network to balance his lonely writer's life, while Irving concurred, in large part, but pointed out that original screenplays rarely succeed--'the good stuff is adapted' from novels. McGrath pointed to rapid change in the book publishing industry and wondered what future the novel would have in the digital world. Russo vowed to keep writing novels until someone tells him he's 'obsolete,' and, noting that, contrary to common wisdom, reading is not declining in America, Irving dismissed the notion that the novel is a dying art form. Russo added that nevertheless new writers face tougher challenges today. Wrapping up, Russo described how screenwriting had made him more aware of story structure and helped him become a more successful writer. Irving cautioned that novel structure should be flexible and organic to the particular story rather than a rigid framework for every story, noting that there are many ways to tell a story.