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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That probably gets at some of the truth of it. The world has changed, and the novel has changed with it. Fictional characters just can't get away with being generically white and middle class and male anymore, the way they used to. Not and still be the object of mass identification and adoration the way the Voice has traditionally been. We just don't think about people that way anymore: we're interested in the specifics of their racial and ethnic and historical circumstances, where they came from and who made them that way. If the novelists under 40 have a shared preoccupation, it is--to put it as dryly as possible--immigration. They write about characters who cross borders, from East to West, from Old World to New and back again, and the many and varied tolls they pay along the way. Their shared project, to the extent that they have one, is the revision of the good old American immigrant narrative, bringing it up to code with the realities of our multicultural, transcontinental, hyphenated identities and our globalized, displaced, deracinated lives. It's a literature of multiplicity and diversity, not one of unanimity, and it makes the idea of a unifying voice of a generation seem rather quaint and 20th century. I may love and empathize with the transplanted Bengalis who populate Lahiri's fiction, or Shteyngart's semi-Americanized Russians, or Foer's uprooted Old Worlders or Smith's international extended families. But I would never be so foolish as to mistake any of them for myself.

The fact is, a generation of readers will probably never again come together around a single book the way they did in the 20th century, when Holden Caulfield went looking for the ducks in Central Park. Those birds have flown. It's hard not to miss that old sense of unanimity. Even if it was a fiction, it was a pleasant, comforting one.

But we'll get over it. Isn't the whole point of literature to transcend its moment--not to get mired in the transient woes of a particular generation? "Let's not forget that the voice of a generation does not equal the best writer of a generation," Ellis points out with admirable perspective. "And the best novels of my generation are not generational novels. The Corrections, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, The Fortress of Solitude ... they can't really be classified as that." Listen for the singular voice of the current generation, and you'll hear something else, something different: multiple voices, singing not in unison, but in harmony.

With reporting by Andrea Sachs/New York

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