A month or so ago, I was interviewing novelist Bret Easton Ellis when he posed a question: “Where’s the great millennial novel?” As we Gen Xers are wont to do with important matters, we fumbled around with the idea for a bit before shrugging and giving up.
But Ellis’s concern has stuck with me. It’s not that millennials are incapable of writing very good, ambitious novels — Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia!” and Elaine Castillo’s “America Is Not the Heart” come to mind. But millennials can’t point to a widely recognized generational touchstone the way we Xers can: No “Everything Is Illuminated,” no “Infinite Jest,” no “The Secret History” — not even an “American Psycho.”
Millennials have plenty of dramatic material to work with. The generation whose eldest members are now on the verge of 40 has grown up with the rise of the Internet and the cratering of the economy; global hyperawareness and Instagram narcissism; a workforce that all but mandates a college education, matched with crippling student debt; “Yes We Can,” then MAGA hats. The plots are there; all we needed, presumably, were the books.
Not long ago, novelist Tony Tulathimutte suggested we’d be misguided to think this stew of socioeconomic dilemmas would lead to an all-encompassing tale of sexting, adulting and AOC. “The generational novel, like the Great American Novel, is a comforting romantic myth,” he wrote in the New York Times. But Tulathimutte suggests that millennials haven’t given up on a novelistic urge to explain themselves. Rather, they’ve given up on the doorstopper social novel — the “billion-footed beast,” as Tom Wolfe called it, that for generations stood as the model of an important work of fiction that captured the attention of readers.
Because: What attention? Few single cultural figures carry even a hint of universal recognition anymore, and even fewer of those are writers; Netflix alone contains too many buzzy binge-ready shows for any employed human to reasonably keep up with. Amid all that, the appeal of literary fiction has been on the downswing: According to the Association of American Publishers, sales of adult fiction dropped 16 percent between 2013 and 2017.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that younger authors, who now face a much tougher time breaking into the literary marketplace, might want to check out of the fiction business entirely.
Tenacious ones seem to have recognized that “checking out” is itself a useful theme. Last year Ottessa Moshfegh published a marvelous downhearted novel, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” that is about exactly that — walking off the job, escaping the worn-out apparatus of work and courtship and friendship and just switching off the lights and sleeping for months, taking grief and ennui and encrusting it in layers of drugs and irony so thick they’d qualify as geologic strata. “It’s like I’m in hell,” the novel’s narrator laments to her unethical psychologist. “Hell? I can give you something for that,” she replies.
There are a host of millennial writers whose sensibilities you might call Moshfeghian — well-schooled in the tricks and tropes of writers from generations past, but busting them apart in the name of facing fear and anxiety in ways past generations papered over with satire. I think of Carmen Maria Machado, who in “Her Body and Other Parties” remixes fairy tales and “Law and Order” episodes in a surrealist, erotic, queer-positive batch of stories. Or Valeria Luiselli, who in her brilliant new novel, “Lost Children Archive,” poaches from the Modernists to develop a language to counter rutted narratives about the U.S.-Mexico border. Or Rebekah Frumkin, who in her ambitious 2018 debut, “The Comedown,” delivered a robust multigenerational tale indicting the boomers’ bumbling on race, religion and money. Or Sally Rooney, whose 2017 novel, “Conversations With Friends,” earned her the moniker “great millennial writer,” thanks to its text-y, boozy rejiggering of the old-fashioned adultery yarn.
There are others I might add to suggest that the kids are all right — Angela Flournoy, Nathaniel Rich, Yaa Gyasi. But even as I keep extending the list, that attention problem shows up again: None of these writers are household names, not in the way a David Foster Wallace or a Donna Tartt became when they released their signature works in the ’90s. And regardless of how you come down on the merits of these millennial novels, none of their authors fit the mold of “generational spokesperson.” That has little to do with selfie selfishness — Luiselli is as expansive, outward-thinking a writer as they come — but with how culture has changed, we just no longer have room for a novelist who’s a generational spokesperson anymore. The idea of a literary celebrity, once a part of America’s establishment in the ’60s and ’70s, became a mildly ironic concept in the ’80s and ’90s. Today it’s an oxymoron.
But if that spares us a generation of bulky, over-earnest big books — that’s a net positive for the culture, if not publishers’ bottom lines. The decay of the old literary apparatus means millennials are free to redefine the terms of engagement for literary culture — no more sober Updike-ian intonations on late-night TV, no more expectations for Great Man novelists who’ve figured it all out to appear on magazine covers.
I suspect none of this will satisfy Ellis. His new book, “White,” is a set of personal essays in which he dismisses millennials as “Generation Wuss” and gets shirty about filtering culture through identity and not capital-A art. Maybe he’s right to suggest that bright young artists today are less likely to distill their ideas into the centuries-old form of the novel. But it may also be that the diversity of the writers doing the work of writing great fiction reveals a need to reconsider what a great novelist is supposed to do, write and look like. Greatness is there — it’s just operating on the periphery of where we’re used to searching for it.
Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”