Published: 4 October, 2012
by GERALD ISAAMAN
HE won the 2010 Man Booker prize and now his latest novel has been applauded by the critics, but Howard Jacobson is profoundly worried by the decline in reading that has hit the world of literature.
And that concern includes the growing army of internet bloggers and the like who pour out their caustic comments on the internet, Jacobson told the Marlborough Literary Festival last Friday.
The 70-year-old Jewish author, who lives in Soho, told the packed audience: “Through all the wonders of the internet and computers, one of the terrible things that has happened is that people have been empowered to believe that if they have an opinion they have a right to that opinion – and that it’s as good as anybody else’s,” he protested. “It isn’t. It quite simply isn’t.”
The acclaimed comic novelist was talking about Zoo Time, his new novel about the end of everything, which stemmed from a true story of a depressed novelist going into a bookshop and stealing his own novel.
“My comedy is very bleak, very black,” he warned. “I remember Ian McEwan once saying the comic author is wrestling you to the floor and tickling you. I don’t. I wrestle you to the floor and put a knife in your heart.”
Yet he insisted: “It is the most terrific fun to feel we are at the end of everything. I love the feeling that it’s over, it’s finished. It gives me, for some reason, enormous joy.
“In this room there is nothing wrong. In this room the world is fine, beautiful, there is nothing to complain of. But outside, elsewhere, things are quite dark.
“Bookshops are closing. Libraries are closing. We do not know what will happen to the physical book from the threat of technology, the ebook.
“I am not horrified by the ebook but I am no great fan of the ebook. And I don’t know where it will leave us.”
One reason for the worrying decline in reading was poor teaching in schools, where pupils considered “bits of books”, not the whole structure.
“We should say we will not have our children taught like that,” declared Jacobson, whose novel The Finkler Question won the Man Booker. “We should demand better teaching. We should be altogether much more demanding.”
In Zoo Time he explores confrontations with reading groups telling authors they can’t identify with their characters.
“I have had this said to me,” recalled Jacobson.”Every writer living has had it said to them.
“And when anybody says that you want to kill them. You want to kill them because it is irrelevant whether you want to identify with someone in a novel. It can be wonderful. There are wonderful reading experiences when you think I am Jane Eyre.
“But you can’t demand that because books do something else. You can’t demand that the characters in a novel be likeable. That’s the other thing you get – I didn’t like the characters in your novels. So bloody what!
“What’s so nice about the Macbeths? Do you really want to spend an evening with King Lear? Where did this idea come from that literature is the story of the people you most like living next door? It’s part of what drives me round the bend.”
So did questions about who were the great novelists, people scoffing when he listed Jane Austen, Dickens, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. “There is an assumption abroad that the really good stuff isn’t fun, that there is a secret thing that we do at night that we put a torch under the covers and we read JK Rowling,” he added. “Well, we don’t.
“The most entertaining book you will ever read is always the best book you will ever read. I am committed to that.”
• Zoo Time. By Howard Jacobson. Bloomsbury, £18.99