Friday, February 19, 2010

Where Have All The Writers Gone?

With the recent passing of J.D. Salinger, Americans have been lamenting the loss of the "voice of a generation". Salinger's works are remembered as helping to define and capture the voice of the growing countercultural movement of the fifties and sixties (it helps that he hadn't published anything since 1965). Hell, Billy Joel namedrops Catcher in the Rye in "We Didn't Start the Fire", and if that isn't the definitive catalogue of influential cultural forces, then I don't know what is.

But does that book still speak to teenagers today the way it did back in 1951? I read the novel when I was seventeen years old, and though I thought it was a very good piece of fiction, I can't say that it radically shaped my thoughts or beliefs. In fact, I remember that book being passed around a lot among my classmates in 11th and 12th grades, the consensus ranging from "It's all right, I guess" to "Holden is sort of a whiner, isn't he?".

I don't bring this up to disparage Salinger's legacy, but merely bring up the changing of the guard in American culture. Teenage angst is a perennial trope in literature, from Shakespeare to Goethe, but Salinger captured perfectly the strange isolation and cynical attitude of a rich, pampered, over-educated teenager at the dawn of the 1950s. Since then, the amount of literature devoted to tackling these same themes has exploded, to the point that by the time any American teenager reads Catcher in the Rye today, it must seem somewhat cliche (Another book about a rich white teenager whining about how nobody understands him?).

This is all leading up to the point that there doesn't seem to be a modern day Holden Caufield to lead disillusioned teenagers into the 21st century. Caufield himself seems strangely irrelevant in the era which he played a large part in ushering in. A list of other countercultural authors from the time period - Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Joseph Heller - now reads like the syllabus to a high school English class; these books, once controversial, troubling, assertively anti-authoritarian, are now revered as icons in American literature.

But who has risen to take their place? These authors wrote at a time where literature existed as a major cultural current, influencing developing minds and burgeoning opinions. There have been great American authors since the 1960s, but they've existed more as an academic force than a cultural one. Thomas Pynchon might be one of my favorite authors, but I sure as hell wouldn't call him the voice of a generation.

This shift in American literature could be the product of our country's prevailing post-Nixonian cynicism. Reading about Sal Paradise's manic cross-country road trips can be inspiring, but it also seems like the product of a more innocent time period (Hitchhiking! How quaint!).

"I think Jack Kerouac is overrated", a teenage friend once confided to me in high school. "Don't you?" At the time (11th grade), it seemed like such a damning, daring accusation, and I found myself agreeing with him. On the Road, like Catcher in the Rye, was a book I found interesting as a teenager, but this interest was of a historical nature. Kerouac was a dinosaur to my sixteen-year old self in 2002; a relic of the past without anything to say about my future. Once a book becomes required reading in high school, it's hard to maintain its status as a countercultural icon.

But what do the American youth have now? Like I said, there's still good writers, but of a far more cynical nature. The Road is well worth a read, but god forbid that my generation is defined by post-apocalyptic nightmares of violent nihilism. Other authors I have enjoyed recently - Bolaño and Murakami, to name two - aren't even American, and they're speaking toward a more global audience. Figures like DeLillo and the aforementioned Pynchon are aiming for academic respect, while previously countercultural figures like Philip Roth have grown up and started writing for old people.

Is there a way out of this cycle? Perhaps. David Foster Wallace was one of the most high-profile American authors of the last decade, and, if anything, his tragic suicide has only increased his name-recognition. I'd argue that his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, is a bloated and overripe tome of a book that gets lost in its own arcane webs of technology and hedonism. As such, it could very well be representative of our current era. But if we're going to try and advertise Infinite Jest as the "book of a generation", I think we have a marketing problem.

Rather, after the success of Infinite Jest, Wallace seemed to express a lot of unease at the book's popularity. Full of smug, ironic humor and references to our present popular culture, the novel read like a synthesis of the major developments of American fiction over the past twenty years. Wallace also perhaps intended it as a goodbye to this sort of detached, ambivalent attitude and dry caustic wit. In his essay, "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction", he confessed the following:

"The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels."

Maybe America needs some authors to be "anti-rebels". Critics, academics, older generations, all these groups might deride such a movement as naive and simplistic, but I'm sure such novels would speak to a sixteen year old out there somewhere who is looking for something to believe in.

My father was always a big fan of Catch-22. When it was assigned reading in high school, I remember him picking it up again and being sorely disappointed. "Don't ever read this book when you're older," he told me. "I thought it was hilarious when I was your age. Now all I see is a bunch of dirty jokes about a hooker and her sister."

I suppose that's the way with these kind of books. They speak to people of a specific age, possibly of a specific time period, and they may not be the most nuanced or long-lasting pieces of fiction. But during their rather limited shelf-life, they still have the ability to change lives and affect people deeply. Wallace's plea for sincerity makes me think of my father and Catch-22, and the idea of a book that speaks to you when you're sixteen might seem outdated and immature by the time you're past forty.

But these books are important, and the youth of American deserve some sort of rallying point. Of course, it's easier said than done to sit down and write the "novel of a generation", but is anyone even trying anymore? Rather than being a "phony", why not give us some literature that preaches good old-fashioned naive, simplistic idealism? Give the youth of today something to grow out of. As Kurt Vonnegut would say - and his Slaughterhouse-Five has perhaps aged better than any other book I've mentioned thus far - "So it goes".