Before venturing any trendspotting comments about American literature of the past decade, it’s probably worth scanning the ground hovering behind any exciting new figures stamped on the air—in other words, to observe again that novel-writing as an artistic practice has changed more slowly than almost any other, producing not only over the last ten, but over the last one hundred-and-fifty years mainly examples of what you might call the perennial novel. The perennial novel’s degree of realism or of sentimentality; its mixture of description, analysis, and dialogue; the social and psychological variety of its characters—all of these things and more shift across time, but only slowly. The novel of this past decade, then, is above all like the novel of previous decades; and it may be precisely because the novel is so open to changing historical content—new ways of talking, eating, and dressing, along with new technologies, manners, and beliefs—that the form itself displays such a glacial stability.
In fact, one of the main developments in recent American literature has got to be a newly self-conscious traditionalism, a preference among many sophisticated writers and critics for what are felt to be tried-and-true ways of doing things. For the novel, this means endorsing a relatively high degree of sentimentality, as against the chilly affect of someone like DeLillo or Brett Easton Ellis; a “well-rounded” approach to characterization, as against a previously avant-garde commitment to the evasiveness or speciousness of robust personal identity; and an acceptance of all the artificial contrivance involved in the kind of plotting associated with Dickens, say. This trend could be said to run through the novel of the 0’s from Franzen’s Corrections (2001)—its most distinguished instance—through Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (2005) to Adam Haslett’s recent Union Atlantic (2010). The relative eclipse of another sort of novel—one of flintier feeling and flatter characters, and more diffuse plots—can be seen in the decline of DeLillo’s work from social critique toward mysticism, and in the sad death of David Foster Wallace, whose fiction had seemed to promise a kind of avant-garde humanism that now we’re left to imagine or, more likely, fail to.
Another big development has been what Marco Roth called “the rise of the neuronovel,” in which novelists bless or afflict their characters with one or another recognizable neurological disorder. In a skeptical survey, Roth argued that the neuronovel (whose practitioners include some talented younger writers, including Rivka Galchen and John Wray, as well as the older and better-known Jonathan Lethem and Ian McEwan) prematurely cedes the novel’s ground to science, and gives us linguistic experimentation as a special case rather than, as in modernism, a new way to write about all people sane and insane. My own suspicion is that the neuronovel reflects some unconscious marketplace pressure to successfully brand a novel’s story and voice, to evoke in a single term (Tourette’s, autism, Capgras) whatever is distinctive about a character whose nature the readers of another age might have been more patient about discovering. But this shouldn’t sound too disparaging or discouraging about the possibility—the necessity, really—of reckoning new ideas about brain function into our approach to fictional character. My own Indecision, whatever its artistic success or failure, could be characterized as ironic variety of neuronovel, and in The Unnamed (2010) Joshua Ferris turned the genre on its head: here the imperative to name the main character’s neurological disorder persists without anyone being able to identify the condition. I admired the formal restlessness Ferris revealed through his peripatetic, undiagnosed protagonist.
At first blush, another kind of formal restlessness seems evident in the breakdown over the last decade and more of the distinction between “literary” and genre fiction (sci-fi, thriller, noir, historical romance), as more and more mainstream writers import features of those genres into their work and a few sci-fi writers (most notably William Gibson) produce novels set in the futuristic present moment. This sort of genre-bending has produced a few superb books, but shouldn’t be given too much credit for formal experimentation or artistic bravery: remodeling a house is not the same as architecture.
Finally, as several critics have observed, a fair amount of fiction by younger writers of the 0’s celebrates moral and sexual innocence and therefore childhood if not childishness. Leslie Fiedler’s great study of Love and Death in the American Novel established that such sentimentalism has deep roots in American literary culture, along with its opposite number, a Gothic preoccupation with the putative evil of human nature whose most formidable recent incarnation is the work of Cormac McCarthy. Fiedler held that American literature tended to vacillate between an immature and evasive sentimentalism, and an equally immature and evasive Gothicism, and no writer seems to me to have succeeded better at illustrating the continued validity of Fiedler’s stern, Freudian thesis than the one who most completely transcends it: namely, Norman Rush, author most recently of Mortals (2003), a book about love and horror both, and to my mind one of the best American novels of the decade. Even more than Middlemarch a novel for grown-ups, Mortals—with far too much historical and psychological precision to indulge any metaphysics of innocence or evil—seems like the latest culmination of that effort at complex moral imagination that F. R. Leavis baptized “the great tradition” in English-language fiction. What’s interesting and maybe a little dismaying, at a time of what I’m tempted to call neotraditionalism in fiction, is how marginal a novel exemplifying the great tradition has come to feel, as far away from the sentimental American heartland as the Botswana where Rush has set his books. Formally, Rush isn’t up to anything very new here; the novelty lies in the rare honesty and accuracy of his perceptions.
Neotraditionalism has been not only ascendant in the work of writers, but articulate in the views of prominent critics. James Wood of the New Yorker has been a brilliant exponent, and Lev Grossman of Time a crude publicist. So in spite of some postmodern or genre-bending refurbishing, we have witnessed at once a practical and an ideological return to “realism.” But realism needs to be understood in a dual way: as a grammar of conventions on the one hand, and a drive toward truth on the other. Clearly realism and reality or truth don’t automatically serve one another, and are often at odds. To use some convient examples: Kafka and Saramago could be called true without being realistic, while the hallmark of middlebrow fiction was always supposed to be that it was realistic without being true. The disappearance of the term “middlebrow” over the last decades only confirms the triumph of the thing itself: enjoyable books, not too trashy, not too hard, sentimental and well-plotted but not so much so as to totally traduce the world. Such realism should be sharply distinguished from that of a Norman Rush.
Generally it’s considered snobbish to mention the spread of the middlebrow at all, though it’s the development that lies behind the others enumerated above. More productive, though, than to trade accusations of snobbery or equally plausible charges of reverse snobbery would be to ask whether a given work points us toward or maneuvers us away from what it’s somewhat embarrassing to call the truth of the world. We might follow Fiedler’s example by reverting to a slightly simple-minded Freudianism and recalling the opposing claims of the pleasure principle and the reality principle, both legitimate and only rarely to be reconciled. It doesn’t necessarily condemn, any more than it vindicates, the renovated realism of the past decade to notice that it has more often been defended in terms of pleasure than of reality; but it seems worth observing that this has been the case.