I came across this article by Lev Grossman from Time magazine somewhere on the internet. In it, he questions if there are any writers who can be considered the voice of this generation:
David Foster Wallace is 44 years old. Jonathan Franzen is 46. Jonathan Lethem, 42. Michael Chabon, 43.
I point that out not to be rude–although I admit it is kind of rude–but because those are the writers that people–people who think about such things, anyway–think of as the young American novelists. And even by the notoriously elastic standards of the literary world–the only place on earth where you can still be a wunderkind at the age of 30–42 is not especially youthful. Wallace, Franzen, Lethem and Chabon may be great writers, but one thing they are not is young writers.
He goes on to discuss the changes in novels over the decades. They’re getting shorter apparently. He also throws down some names: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Salinger, Kerouac, etc. He wonders if the voice might be still ripening or if this is a time where there may not be a voice that can speak for everyone. Or are the MFA programs actually retarding the progress of literature?
At first, I the article annoyed me, but having gone back and read it several times, I think he might have a few good points or at least a few good questions. Do I think there is a “Voice of Our Generation” right now? No idea. Will one come along? Sure. I think it’s more complex than just naming a few authors (who are all men by the way) and seeing if the label sticks. Who’s being published these days? How has the changing nature of publishing affected these voices over the years? There are a great number of talented writers out there, some struggling to get their voices heard, some already being heard.
One such author is Sarah Hall. She’s not American—she’s English. I read her second novel The Electric Michelangelo last year and it was one of the best things I read all year. The writing, the story, everything came together beautifully. You can imagine my excitement when I received a galley of her first novel Haweswater, which Harper Perennial will be publishing in October for the first time in the US. Here comes my tangent from this title’s post. In an interview in the back of the book, Hall tells how lightning hit the roof on which she was standing and coursed through her body. And she’s almost been hit twice since then. I almost dropped the book—it’s very similar to what’s happened to me—I’ve almost been hit by lightning several times. It’s been close, two feet away close. Now I feel this connection to her (and now everyone thinks I’m nuts) and that is my tangent.
Feel free to chime in with an opinion here. Maybe we do have a voice of the generation and I’m just not aware of it yet.
I don’t wonder that MFA programs aren’t retarding literary progress, but rather, the culture is. Writers go to MFA programs as a legitimate way to drop out of the work force (you can go back to work without too much of dent to your resume) to write (and get a loan or fellowship to live on). We don’t have patrons anymore; the cost of living is so high, there is not much of an option to pull an “On the Road” lifestyle, or even become an expat to live on the cheap…That’s simplistic, I know. There are other factors such as declining education and the quick pace and urgent need to succeed endemic to our culture.
I know Jonathan Safran Doer has a big following among the 20somethings…if that’s the generation we’re talking about. (I’m not too crazy about Everything Is Illuminated, though.)
I’ll check out Hall — sounds interesting.