Pretenders to the Throne

With the recent deaths of Peter Matthiessen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Maya Angelou, and with Philip Roth and Alice Munro “retiring” from writing, we are indeed at the end of an age in literature. Other writers like William H. Gass, James Salter, V.S. Naipaul, and Umberto Eco, to name only four, are in the deep winter of their lives. With these giants of literature heading toward their respective sunsets, who of any real importance is left for us to read? Who will carry the torch of literature into the next generation of readers?

I’ve yet to warm to the writing of the new stars of the literary world. Writers like Junot Diaz, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri and others. This is not to say that I’ve never read these authors, I have. I’m also not saying that these are writers with very little talent: in each case all of them are very smart and sophisticated writers. It’s just that I have never found myself totally enthralled by their work in the way that I have the writers I’ve mentioned above. Infinite Jest is just too long to slog through, and I tried to read Zadie Smith, but soon tired of her. I’ve read Franzen and Lahiri, and find them to be okay. I have read with interest their non-fiction that I like quite a lot. Franzen’s thoughts on the modern novel are provocative and smart. Foster Wallace is one of the most careful readers I’ve encountered. Junot Diaz’s work with the Boston Review is noteworthy. Yet, I do not find this group of writers to be, well, all that interesting or groundbreaking in the way that I find the writers mentioned in the first paragraph.

There is a theme that runs through Shakespeare’s history plays: the pretender to the throne. In most cases we see a younger upstart admiring the older statesman only to usurp a place of importance on the world stage. Shakespeare wrote brilliantly about the younger generation taking over for the old. His masterpiece on old age, King Lear, in part depicts the valuelessness of our elderly when they no longer seem to be of use. I see this “new generation” of writers in very much the same light as I see Shakespeare’s pretenders. These new writers are, for the most part, firmly grounded in realism, which is fine, but their writing sounds too polished to me, too worked over. I do not get the sense of excitement with these younger writers that I do with the older ones. Who is our contemporary Faulkner, our contemporary Dinesen? Where are the writers who will write as if their lives depended upon it and not to fulfill some adolescent dream of being the next J. K. Rowling? When will writers finally emerge from the sterility that is a creative writing program or workshop?

But then, maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon.

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