October 4, 2001

Novelists Now

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To make the case for capital-L Literary fiction, one need look no further than this week’s bestseller lists. Nestled between the easily digestible commercial outputs of Clancy, King, and Nora Roberts rests Jonathan Franzen’s expansive, intergenerational new novel, The Corrections, a portrait of the Lamberts, a nuclear family gone awry in an age of complication (the late 1990s). Franzen has written an admirable work: well-paced, funny, and thought-provoking, capturing the Zeitgeist of the recent American milieu.

Franzen’s desire, detailed in an April 1996 essay for Harper’s, was to write a book that would not just garner critical acclaim, but would make people talk about it. Writing such a book is a daunting task in an era when the novel competes with a plethora of 24-hour cable stations, Web sites, and the unending vomitus served by the popular book, movie, and music industries. In pulling off his coup, Franzen has joined an elite class of American writers, and upped the bar for his peers — novelists his age or younger who strive for academic renown and a considerable readership.

Unlike the elder generation, who have often followed Joyce’s writ of, “silence, exile, and cunning” (Don DeLillo, Cynthia Ozick, Thomas Pynchon (’59), and J. D. Salinger, to name a few), younger writers have proven more accessible. While still guarded, today’s writers of regard born post-1960 have been performing public readings and granting more interviews. They are showing a willingness to promote the projects that have consumed years of their lives rather than let them go ignored in a society that is tentative to embrace literary writing.

In doing so, sometimes against their better judgment, they have been able to reach out to the reading public, to engage readers beyond the pages of their novels. Accordingly, they have attracted a wider (and younger) audience for literature in an era when academia has too often flummoxed would-be English majors.

Dave Eggers, 30, serves alcohol as friends play music during readings of his daring and inventive best-selling memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. That book deals with the death of his parents, and Eggers’ subsequent rearing of his young brother in a most exceptional and unconventional manner.

David Foster Wallace, 40, author of Infinite Jest, went on a cruise and attended a state fair for a collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

Michael Chabon, 38, the author of Wonder Boys, recently allowed Rolling Stone to interview him after winning the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Chabon’s prize-winning work is the poignant story of a young artist who escapes Nazi-occupied Prague and faces the travails and possibilities of 1940’s America through the comic book medium, in the looming shadow of 1940s Europe.

Zadie Smith, 25, has interviewed with various British and American publications for her first novel, White Teeth, a sprawling Dickensian tale of two London families made up of a diverse composite of cultural identities and ideologies.

Rick Moody 40, whose latest publication is a collection of inventive, form-defying short stories, Demonology, teamed up with Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke to help establish a new literary prize for works by young writers.

Franzen and Moody, all New York residents, have documented and published heartfelt accounts of their personal experiences on September 11 during the past few weeks in national publications. Ever the elder statesman and an influence to many of these writers, Don DeLillo (White Noise, Underworld), has been doing more readings and public appearances of late, and will be taking part in a charity reading event for the September 11th Fund on October 11 at New York City’s Town Hall.

Unlike the 1980’s “It” writers, including the over-hyped Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis, this generation’s youthful literary figures appear indifferent to personal fame, intent on pushing their work to a wider readership, not themselves. And their works — intellectually driven, structurally intricate, and big-hearted — are testament to the manifold directions in which fiction is continually growing.

Each providing a distinct voice for the world of letters, vibrant young writers are looking to forge new paths. Dispersed by geography and background, they are united by a common thread: that Literature, at its best, has the power to stand the tests of time — to dazzle with word and conjure images, attest to the grand and the intimate, macro and individual. While it is certainly not the writer’s duty to be a public figure, it is a lamentable occurrence to watch an artistically engaging work fall through the cracks when it deserves to find an audience. But the up-and-coming generation, learning from the past and looking toward the future, is set on not letting this happen.

Archived article by L. Weiss