Who's the Voice of this Generation?

Hemingway's rose like the sun. Kerouac found his on the road. So why can't today's young novelists express the essence of their era?

  • 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.

    But if Wallace, Franzen et al. aren't the leading young novelists anymore, who are? It's not an idle question. The novel is one of the most vital cultural resources we have--a private, potent means of sharing the unspeakableness of daily life with one another. So it's only natural to wonder who's taking care of the novel--who's taking up the torch and where exactly they're taking it. Or whether it has gone out. The novel is one of the platforms from which the voice of a generation speaks. And if you listen closely, you'll start to wonder if the current generation has a voice at all.

    It's not that there aren't any young novelists (for purposes of rough-'n'-ready generalization, let's say novelists under 40). At 39, Jhumpa Lahiri already has a powerful novel (The Namesake) and a Pulitzer-winning story collection. Jonathan Safran Foer (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) has got a lot of attention both popular and critical, and he's only 29. A somewhat partisan sampling would also include Colson Whitehead (The Intuitionist), 36; Edwidge Danticat (Breath, Eyes, Memory), 37; Dave Eggers (You Shall Know Our Velocity), 36; Arthur Phillips (Prague), 37; Curtis Sittenfeld (Prep), 30; Myla Goldberg (Bee Season), 34; Nicole Krauss (The History of Love), 31; and Gary Shteyngart (Absurdistan), 33. If we open our borders to the Brits, we also get Zadie Smith (On Beauty), who at 30 is probably her generation's consensus No. 1 seed, as well as Monica Ali (Brick Lane), 39, and David Mitchell (Black Swan Green), 37. And there are dozens of young mid-list talents at work who don't get as much press but probably should. Keep an eye on the painfully funny Sam Lipsyte and the eerily fantastical Kelly Link.

    Not only do young novelists exist, but we can even say a few things about what their books have in common. For example, they're getting shorter. Ten years ago novels were expanding rapidly, like little overheated primordial galaxies. Chunky, world-devouring tomes like Wallace's Infinite Jest and Franzen's The Corrections were supposed to be the wave of the future, as if the ominously burgeoning complexity and interconnectedness of contemporary reality demanded correspondingly fatter books to embrace them. Now, writers are more likely to immerse themselves in a single time and place, and at more portable lengths. The cosm has gone from macro- back down to micro-.

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