Gravity's Rainbow, Dog Soldiers, JR--The National Book Awards winners for fiction in 1974, 1975, and 1976. Watergate, the end of Vietnam, the OPEC oil "crisis", corporate corruption and unchecked capitalism--and American writers rose to the challenge of their times. But where are the young writers of today? I was encouraged to see that William T. Vollmann won this year's award for his sprawling, ambitious novel Europe Central, which takes on the Nazi mindset. But where are the young, ambitious American writers willing to take on the socio-economic dramas of our times? Surely the Bush administration's warped fantasia is rich material for fiction. Established writers like George Saunders, Deborah Eisenberg, Aimee Bender, Jim Shepard, and Joy Williams take on our current climate obliquely and deftly, but I worry about the Myspace Generation of writers.
In the hundreds of manuscripts I see every week for Tin House magazine, and having just read through forty books of fiction by writers under the age of thirty-five for the Young Lions Fiction Award, I've got that dull headache that comes from consuming a slew of cookie-cutter domestic autobiographical fiction that could have been churned out of one big factory. Actually, a lot of it does. It's like the joke about how all of the Indian restaurants on Manhattan's 6th Street actually share one big underground kitchen. With American fiction that kitchen is called graduate writing programs. There are now so many graduate writing programs in this country that there is an annual convention, which, coincidentally is being held next week in Austin (yes, I will be there, and if I am not stoned by the attendees, I will post from heart of the sausage factory).
More books than ever are being published, despite a declining readership. Non-fiction outsells fiction, in part because so much of today's fiction lacks the urgency of non-fiction. Fiction should feel urgent and necessary. Good writing, after all, can save your life. While many great writers have gone through MFA programs--it can be a sanctuary for finding one's voice--it can also be a place of homogenization, where all of the interesting rough edges are filed off leaving the equivalent of those tiny shaved carrot nubbins. There is a pull to the bland center. This blandification of young American lit extends to major publishers, now ruled by editorial committees of marketing and publicity people fearful of taking risks, and instead with the shortsighted focus on the all-holy quarterly bottom line. (Which is idiotic in the longterm--revolutionary work sells, as Gerald Howard wrote in Bookforum: Gravity's Rainbow sold a quarter million copies in its first ten years.)
For the last several months I have been putting together an international issue, so have been reading work from young writers from around the world. In general, writers from nations whose citizens aren't addicted to American Idol are producing more interesting work, work with that all important sense of urgency. Here at home, much of the interesting and energetic writing by younger writers is being produced by immigrants, visiting writers, and second generation Americans like Gary Shtyengart, Aleksandar Hemon, Rattawut Lapcharoensap, and Yuyin Li. Writers fleeing censorship, starvation, genocide, incompetent governments incapable of helping its citizens in times of natural disaster, religious intolerance, cultural conservatism, Big Brother rule. The reasons why people have always come to America. But we are now all facing what this country's immigrants have fled--religious intolerance, government for and by the rich, homophobia, racism, economic deprivation, incompetent government incapable of helping its citizens in times of natural disaster, and Big Brother rule. So why are our young writers writing navel-gazing "quiet" stories and novels? Isn't it time to get loud and messy and live up to the times we are in? I, for one, am hungry for more satisfying fiction.