American fiction doesn’t matter anymore

Armin Rosen
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Lack of imagination, breezy ignorance of the citizenry, plain old-fashioned fear—these are not characteristics one associates with a society that once produced William Faulkner, James Baldwin, and Thomas Pynchon. Yet America plainly no longer produces writers who can tap into the vulgarities of national life and break through the ever-present limits, tragedies, and absurdities of the American condition. The writers are unwilling; the readers are uninterested. American teens now spend 91 minutes a day on TikTok. Reading and writing have become elite activities, and the American literary industry has become overwhelmingly suspicious of dissent.

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The American relationship with the written word has always been more fraught than we’d ever admit to ourselves. America owes some large part of its existence to President Thomas Jefferson, one of history’s great philosopher-statesmen and someone who, like his fellow national co-founder Benjamin Franklin, ranks as one of the all-time great writers of English prose. But American culture is at least equally the product of the Scotch-Irish peasantry, indigenous communities, and chattel slaves, groups for whom literacy wouldn’t become an established fact for decades or even centuries after the country’s founding.

It should be no surprise that the literary works that have penetrated the most deeply into the national imagination have a vernacular, quasi-oral character that allows them to bridge the gap between the traditionally literate and the excluded masses. The Mississippi River twang of Mark Twain’s novels, Invisible Man’s rich patchwork of inner and outer voices, and even the conceit that Portnoy’s Complaint is the transcript of a very one-sided therapy session, root these works in a recognizably American interplay of high-cultural aspiration and low-cultural reality. They are focused on everyman-type characters who speak and think in almost defiantly unliterary modes. The tensions and harmonies between the folksy and the formal mark nearly every one of our masterpieces. Ishmael, narrator of Moby Dick, is practically fleeing a literary life—better to be a whaler than to write for public consumption, declares this most paradoxically American of novels. As far as we know, the only book aboard Captain Ahab’s Pequod was the Bible.

Shorn of its sense of populist responsibility and evasive of its richly fertile internal contradictions, contemporary American fiction is all but irrelevant. Hardly anything interesting gets written, very little of it gets read, and absolutely none of it feels urgent. Maybe the fragile balance at the heart of our high-low culture has been broken, and the internet, streaming services, podcasting, and the slow death of newspapers and magazines have joined forces to destroy any remaining popular interest in reading books.

This explanation doesn’t go far enough, though. Noise and nonsense should arguably strengthen this country’s literature, providing it with a wealth of material along with a sense of purpose—an all-pervading mindlessness that American fiction can explain and channel and heroically define itself against. American literature constantly generated widely read works of penetrating cultural critique during the variously conformist, tumultuous, and self-obsessed mid-to-late decades of the last century. Our writers clearly aren’t up to the task anymore, the 2022 meme-novel Fuccboi notwithstanding.

The major American novels of recent years are of parochial appeal, reflecting the narrow anxieties of a disconnected elite. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life—the work of a former New York Times editor—is either a searing depiction of the human condition or a near-exploitative work of trauma porn, but chances are this chronicle of the lives of a group of professional-class strivers who met as college roommates won’t stick around long enough for that particular debate to matter. Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads, from 2021, scored some solid reviews, but as yet another story of the dissolution of postwar midwestern American values, it hits on many of the same themes as The Corrections, his 2001 bestseller that now seems to belong to another world entirely. Perhaps the biggest event in recent American fiction was Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person,” a 2017 viral short story in the New Yorker which was less a work of fiction than a meta-commentary in support of #MeToo.

One would think that the upheavals of recent years—Donald Trump and the coronavirus and the various racial and sexual reckonings that seized our shores—would provide endless fodder for American fiction writers. But there have been no defining novels related to the Kafkaesque absurdities of college sex tribunals, no Pynchonian treatments of crypto or the Metaverse, and no darkly ironic cross-examinations of identitarian manias that have reached any kind of popular attention. That’s because American fiction is alienated from the culture it once hoped to portray and represent, and from a potential reading public whose tastes and folkways it now happily ignores.

The tools for reintroducing the mass of Americans to serious art are ones that writers seem uninterested in wielding: religion is out of style; American history is treated by educated types as a source of shame. The emergence of a truly subversive political novelist, like France’s Michel Houellebecq, would be impossible here—subversion isn’t worth the price of having your private and professional life being crushed in an instant by 50,000 tweets. If the great American novel of the moment is Twitter, it’s a book whose authors are programmers and Elon Musk—and not the fearful Ivory Tower types whose sterile products require life-support from public radio and mandatory school reading campaigns to maintain their ever-dwindling sales figures.

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