Is American fiction dead?
Yes, J.D. Salinger is dead; he died Jan. 27, exactly a year after the death of John Updike. And yes, we lost Kurt Vonnegut and Norman Mailer in 2007. But do four deceased literary lions constitute a death sentence for American fiction? They do for Mark Lawson, writing in the British newspaper the Guardian.
There is an obvious temptation to believe that the [four above] authors who have recently died form – with others who fought in the war (such as Saul Bellow and Gore Vidal) or were teenagers in America during it (Philip Roth) – the greatest literary generation the country has ever seen or ever will see. This triumphalist but nostalgic position holds that these writers took advantage of their nation's geopolitical power – and a media culture and bookstore customer-base which regarded serious writers seriously – to create a superpower of the pen to match the financial and military clout of the US during what became known as the American century.
For the record, Gore Vidal and Philip Roth are both living. That is beside the point for Lawson, who has been at work on an eight-part series for BBC Radio 4, "Capturing America," which begins its broadcast Thursday in England.
"Even before the death of Salinger," Lawson writes, "there had been melancholy signs that this was the right time to take stock." Which doesn't quite make sense. Salinger hasn't published new work in more than four decades. If Salinger's exit really signals the shift of American letters from importance to irrelevance, wasn't our expiration date June 19, 1965, the day his last story was published?
Apparently not. Lawson finds much to like in the intervening decades, including some poets and playwrights. He interviewed many writers -- more than a few in their twilight years -- for his series.
Updike, in that last interview, reflected on having twice been pictured on the cover of Time magazine, part of the nation's honours system, to mark the publication of Couples in 1968 and Rabbit Is Rich in 1982. Now, the novelist who takes that prize is Dan Brown. And so the changing of the guard in American fiction is arguably not just generational but cultural: the large, interested readership who lined their shelves with Updike's Rabbit Quartet, Bellow's Herzog, Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, Roth's Portnoy's Complaint and other bestsellers of serious literary merit had perhaps migrated to the quick-read thriller and the confessional memoir.
Eh, maybe. But if Lawson is trying to make the case that American fiction is dead, he can't switch midstream and say that quality American fiction is dead. Brown is an easy target -- "The Da Vinci Code" certainly lacks the weight and stylings of Mailer's debut, "The Naked and the Dead" -- but his popularity is the symptom of a greater cultural shift.
If our popular attention has moved its focus from the intellectual to the sensational, that can hardly be something that's confined to literature. And it can hardly be confined to America.
Brown can't be. He's a mega international bestseller. Publisher Random House says "The Da Vinci Code" is the biggest-selling novel ever. Whether or not you like it, it's a sign that our literature is very much alive.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Hollywood Park Cemetery. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times