Lauren Elkin, writer, reader, and native New Yorker living in Paris points us to James Wood in conversation with Mark Greif of n+1 along with Ruth Franklin (The New Republic) and Dennis Loy Johnson (Moby Lives, again)on The Great American Novel and the NY Times’ Best Fiction in the last 25 years poll topped by Toni Morrison’s Beloved… from a couple of years ago.
Here’s a summary of the discussion, which, understandably I suppose, fails to predict what new form the novel might take in 2030. It does however provide some good ideas on where content is headed:
Wood suggests that the future great American novel will come from a hybrid of Delillo and Bellow: because the latter provides a metaphysical interest in progress of the soul lacking in the former, who excels in depicting a mind overloaded with information.
The NY Times list is criticized as being a reflection of what those polled thought most significant, most worthy of canonization, rather than what was most pleasurable.
The question arises: why no Foster Wallace, no Moody? Winners were all born in 1930s. None post 1945. Where were Infinite Jest, Fortress of Solitude, Middlesex? None of these novels showed up. Perhaps those polled were concerned not with aesthetics, but that which has been ‘burnished by posterity.’
When asked which writers best embody the brightest possibilities:
Franklin points to British author David Mitchell as important; one who tells stories in unconventional forms. She follows up with Jeff Eugenides, Zadie Smith and Monica Ali. Suggests that American writers are not holding their own against foreigners. Greif picks Frenchman Michel Hollebecq as avant garde on subject matter: the aftermath of the sexual revolution, cloning islamoterrorists… ‘powerful if sloppy’. Wood praises Johnathan Letham’s Fortress of Solitude, and says Lydia Davis is capable of producing something innovative and great.
Johnson tells us that most new novels he sees involve art imitating art: novels, instead of being rooted in the word, aim to produce the same kind of buzz as movies and rock and roll. They are egocentric acts. Authors instead of talking to him about their literary loves, boast of ability to perform at readings and how good they are at selling. Wood talks of the pressure on young writers to market, to succeed. Johnson repeats that experimental literature will increasingly originate from independent publishing houses.
Little is conjectured about the future form of the novel. Wood provides a useful summary of content and themes which will dominate in the coming years: American power, fundamentalism both Christian and Islamic, immigration…these topics will join with the novelistic preoccupation with information, the mediation of the self, fragile or endlessly mediated subjectivity, and history. Hybridization, and the collision of ethnicity is now commonplace; ‘part of the air novelists breathe.’
Greif ends by emphasizing the importance of lag. The great WWll novel isn’t From Here to Eternity, its Catch 22 written in the early 1960s. Similarly, the great 9/11 novel probably wont be written until the 2020s.
Not a bad summary of content. But, again, a lack of insightful speculation on what new form the novel might take. Perhaps because once you’ve done consciousness, subconsciousness and dreams…there is no other place to go. Broadly speaking, Joyce did it all. If we take the novel as a work of imagination using words on the page, we probably can go no further.
If however, we talk technology and virtual reality, it seems to me that new continents appear…the putting of others into simulated situations. Creating worlds experienced not just in the mind of the reader, but through their senses as well.The author remains responsible for selecting the smells, sights, sounds…the general sensible conditions…and the story…the techno geek enables the ‘reader’ to experience the situation…
As with all mediums of the imagination, accurate depiction of character, and interest-holding plot lines will be of central concern to writer and reader/experiencer.