Or maybe they never really did.
Last year, we learned President Trump doesn’t really have a taste for literature. The news was absurd, but felt depressingly apt: We live in an era that prizes literary sensation over social change.
When was the last time a literary novel was released to immediate fanfare? Put aside Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin. Show me a recent book that will be taught in high schools for decades to come. Show me something like “The Great Gatsby” or “The Bluest Eye.”
Can’t think of one? That’s because it doesn’t exist.
Literature as call to action
Between the mid-nineteenth and late twentieth centuries, a good book could be a clarion of social change.
Harper Lee, Ray Bradbury, George Orwell and Ralph Ellison all published major cultural novels within 15 years of each other. They grappled with government censorship, decline of the collective intellect, social justice and race relations. Those four novels?—?“To Kill A Mockingbird,” “Fahrenheit 451,” “1984,” and “Invisible Man”?—?have become the literary gold standard for their respective issues. (You could argue Huxley’s “Brave New World” was an even more prescient take on how we’d meet our doom.)
Unfortunately, Lee and her ilk were the last of their breed. And because no modern author has stepped in to fill their shoes, we’re looking to the classics for answers on how to live in a climate of political and social tumult.
Is this because new writers have simply stopped trying to tackle the same issues Orwell struggled with? Doubtful. More likely, it’s because the era of literary fanfare is over. All we’ve got to rely on?—?or rather, all we know of to rely on?—?are the golden oldies. Not bad for Orwell’s estate, certainly, but a troubling sign of literature’s growing frailty.
Searching for a successor
Emily Shapiro writes for ABC about the now-extinct fanfare of big books. “[‘Mockingbird’], released at the height of the Civil Rights movement, put a personal spin on tense, racial issues in the South by placing a relatable story into the hands of every American student,” she says. “The book was assigned widely in American schools and quickly became a literary and popular favorite?—?worldwide sales topped 40 million.”
OK, fine. Who’s our Harper Lee? Is it Jonathan Franzen, telling and retelling the story of Americana-flavored, middle-class angst in books like “The Corrections” and “Freedom”?
Where’s our “Mockingbird”? Is it Eugenides’ progressive and Pulitzer Prize-winning “Middlesex,” or his monogamy-is-dead “Marriage Plot”? Maybe it’s Zadie Smith’s hyperrealistic slices of black and biracial life in “On Beauty”?
Whoever our Lee is?—?if we’ve even got one?—?he or she has been robbed of the same caliber microphone that authors enjoyed in the 100-something-year window during which we took literature seriously.
The difference between event and achievement
I’m not saying we’re in a literary drought. There are plenty of capable?—?even great?—?authors operating right now. But their work has shifted gradually from addressing humanity’s concerns to more personal ones. Instead of issuing grand novels that function as catalysts for social change, these writers focus on personal themes: family, romantic love, addiction, career.
When they do tackle larger topics like race or feminism or government or homophobia, it’s never the event it once was. “Mockingbird,” for instance, has sold roughly a million copies per year since its release in 1960. Compare that to David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest”?—?a book some consider the greatest literary achievement since “Ulysses”?—?and the numbers are telling. “Infinite Jest,” after twenty years, has only just surpassed a million copies worldwide.
History repeating itself
If we agree that Lee’s novel was a unifying cultural event, and not “just” a great literary achievement, one question follows naturally: Does it have a modern equivalent?
Better yet, do we need a modern equivalent? Short answer: Yes, we do.
Whatever your leanings, it’s not difficult to acknowledge that the presidential campaign illuminated a division we’d either forgotten or ignored. Julia Eichelberger, professor of Southern Literature at College of Charleston, says:
A lot of people, particularly in Harper Lee’s lifetime, didn’t really understand the South and looked down upon it, and thought of it as very backward … Her novel gives us a particular point of view of an independent southern woman’s voice and we don’t have anything quite like that from other southern women writers.
Now, after a year of political sparring between two candidates, we see a similar issue. Blue folks see red ones as dangerously out of touch?—?“very backward,” in Eichelberger’s words. Reds view blues with the same disdain. Dissatisfied Dems protest the free election while relieved Republicans look forward to four years of swamp-draining. We’re echoing the America that Harper Lee lived in. Where, in this broken landscape, is a voice like hers to help each side reach some level of empathy for its opponents?
Is it because of their eloquence that they fail to be repeated? In other words, is it because we’ve already got a Harper Lee telling us that the South isn’t inherently backward that we don’t need some new piece of art spouting an updated?—?but ultimately identical?—?message?
Or is it because Lee’s novel never created the social change we give it credit for?
Think of it this way: The type of person likely to purchase and read a novel of great social import is not necessarily the type of person who most needs its message. Sure, “Mockingbird” helped connect readers to a world they didn’t fully comprehend. It might have even assisted the Civil Rights Movement in some intangible way. But was it a racial panacea? Certainly not.
Is there some prescription I can offer to revive the Great American Novel as a purveyor of cultural awakening? Take five books every semester and see me after college, I suppose. Failing that, I’m not sure we can hope modern art has the same far-reaching social effects that it used to.
Combine the modern political tumult with our meager attention span, and it’s unlikely that any “serious” work of literature today would find the audience Lee’s did?—?even less likely that it could enact any meaningful social change.