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?

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In fact, the novel is getting more user-friendly in general. Fun and profundity are no longer mutually exclusive. Humor is back: Smith and Shteyngart are satirists, Foer and Mitchell are wits. Likewise, vigorous, plotty storytelling is in vogue again. For much of the 20th century the border between high and low fiction was diligently policed. Now there's an attractive trend toward hybridizing high and low, grafting the brilliant verbal intelligence of high literature onto the sturdy narrative roots of genre fiction. "That used to be a real novelty act, or something that was done with kid gloves or with heavy irony," notes Lethem. "Now, a lot of writing has a very natural degree of engagement with the vernacular culture." Look at someone like Sittenfeld, whose Prep, a wildly readable account of a Midwestern girl floundering at an élite Eastern boarding school, became a surprise best seller. Is she a literary writer or a commercial writer? The distinction no longer seems to apply. She's just a good writer.

All that is lovely news for future students of 21st century literature. And yet: there's still no writer under 40 who makes you want to stand up in a crowded theater and shout, That right there is the voice of this generation, that is the yearning and the rage of the contemporary, embodied in some poor sad sack of a character who's mad as hell and just can't get no satisfaction. Every once in a while a novel comes along that makes everything else feel dated, that feels as current as tomorrow's e-mail, that gives readers the story of their own secret ineffable desperation with such immediacy that it induces spontaneous mass recognition as the Voice. Every once in a while--but not lately.

You can walk from the beginning of the 20th century, stepping safely from decade to decade, and find one writer after another anointed as the Voice. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger, Jack Kerouac, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis ... but once you get to Douglas Coupland (who published Generation X in 1991), the last novelist who on a moonless night could be taken for the V.O.A.G., the trail goes cold. Not quite abruptly--for a few twinkly, magical minutes interest swirled around Wallace, and Eggers (more for his memoir than his fiction), and Chuck Palahniuk--but, ultimately, definitively.

The process by which the Voice is anointed is a mysterious one. "I think youth has a lot to do with it," says Ellis, whose latest novel, Lunar Park, came out last summer. "Being the first--and not necessarily the best, just the first--to capture what it feels like to be a member of your generation catapults you forward in a direction that doesn't happen to Jonathan Safran Foer or Zadie Smith. I guess I got lucky, because the way I wrote about us was something that a large number of people connected and agreed with. It wasn't orchestrated. There wasn't a plan."

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