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BLOG: Writers of the Lost Arc

"A crop of superb novels by younger writers keen to edge their fading elders from the spotlight"

I'm happy my novel was included in the Wall Street Journal's overview of the best novels of the year. It's a provocative article. Here's the link, but if you're not a WSJ subscriber, I cut and pasted it below.


The Year in Fiction 2013
A crop of superb novels by younger writers keen to edge their fading elders from the spotlight.
by Sam Sacks

Nothing better encapsulates the state of fiction at the end of 2013 than the hoary motif of Father Time and Baby New Year. On one side are the old, the established, the reverenced; on the other, the young and fresh-faced, squalling for recognition and eager to nudge their elders from the spotlight. They will do it soon if the past 12 months were any indication.

No reading year is without disappointments, but it's noteworthy that in 2013 almost all of them came from A-list novelists whose books failed to warrant the attention they attracted. Even a partial list of high-profile authors who offered up duds—Robert Stone, Thomas Pynchon, J.M. Coetzee, James Salter, Nicholson Baker, Amy Tan, Tom Perrotta, Jamaica Kincaid, Kent Haruf—suggests that a changing of the guard can't come quickly enough. Naturally there were celebrated writers, such as Daniel Woodrell (with a soulful Ozarks upstairs-downstairs tale, "The Maid's Version") and Margaret Drabble (with her sage ruminations on community and motherhood in "The Pure Gold Baby"), who made good on their reputations by beautifully polishing already first-rate prose styles or, like Claire Messud ("The Woman Upstairs") and Donna Tartt ("The Goldfinch"), by pushing their craft in risky new directions. But these exceptions were obscured by the constant hype over second-rate novels by old standbys, or over perennially overpraised industry darlings Dave Eggers and Jonathan Lethem.

In a less neurotic era, this wouldn't matter much—bad books could just be bad books without necessarily symbolizing the novel's approaching doom. But in the age of omnipresent digital media clamoring for every moment of a reader's waking life, if the most widely discussed novels lack substance, the literary conversation is bound to seem ominously moribund. Such a vacuum was evidenced by the book world's fixation on narrowly parochial issues—the ethics of negative reviewing, for instance, or what Jonathan Franzen (the intellectual black hole into which all debate seems inexorably dragged) thinks about Twitter. On the surface of 2013, there was the strong impression of a literary culture that had bought into the rumors of its own demise.

But that was only the surface—if you did a little digging, you were likely to tap into wellsprings of brilliance and vitality. No book possessed a more sublime architecture or deeper spiritual fervor than László Krasznahorkai's "Seiobo There Below," and the mazy, mesmerizing sentences of the Hungarian visionary spotlights the wonders that can be found in the flourishing, if resolutely unprofitable, world of books in translation. From here came the gamesome Icelandic myths in Sjón's "The Whispering Muse" and the creepily gripping second volume of "My Struggle," the seemingly unfiltered autobiographical novel by Swedish phenomenon Karl Ove Knausgaard.

That this is the golden age for English-language fiction from the Indian subcontinent is hardly news, and 2013 yielded more marvels, in particular Manu Joseph's "The Illicit Happiness of Other People," which threads roguish comedy throughout its tapestry of loss; Nadeem Aslam's tenaciously humane Afghan war novel, "The Blind Man's Garden"; and the sculpted marble prose of Jhumpa Lahiri's story of family and displacement, "The Lowland." The pleasure of these books is their classic storytelling, but it is also notable how the authors manage an unapologetic political consciousness that is blessedly free of the self-aware hand-wringing that accompanies the American social novel.

In the U.S., some of the year's most exciting writers were found in the easily overlooked peripheries of the independent presses (and some never saw print at all—recently in these pages Barton Swaim wrote that the best novel he read all year, Ruchama King Feuerman's "In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist," is only available electronically). Stephen Dixon produced something of a capstone to his huge and defiantly original body of work with his painstakingly detailed chronicle of a marriage, "His Wife Leaves Him." Percival Everett, who has been nearly as prolific and much more variegated, wrote his best book yet, the remarkably tender deconstructionist masterpiece, "Percival Everett by Virgil Russell."

With more mainstream publishing, the most reliable way to discover great fiction in 2013 was to shift your focus away from the familiar authors who dominated review coverage and toward the untried talents bringing out their first or second books. The truth is that the novel isn't dying: It's as young as it has been in decades.

Youth is of course a relative term here and is much more about publishing experience than age. A writer's early efforts are typically praised conditionally, as promissory notes for future successes. What's striking is how good some first novels were in 2013. Philipp Meyer's grand and bloody Texas epic, "The Son," and Hanya Yanagihara's hallucinatory jungle travelogue, "The People in the Trees," were terrifically accomplished. Paul Harding's second novel, the powerful metaphysical journey through grief, "Enon," demonstrated that we can have high hopes for our literary wünderkinder. In each case, the ambition of these books was matched by the quality of their execution.

Younger writers seemed especially emboldened to go outside of their own experience, crossing cultural or historical boundaries. By such imaginative leaps readers could venture into war-torn Chechnya with Anthony Marra in "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena," down to the deepest layers of the ocean with J.M. Ledgard in "Submergence" and, thanks to Colin McAdam's "A Beautiful Truth," into the minds of chimpanzees. Hannah Kent's "Burial Rites" and Elizabeth L. Silver's "The Execution of Noa P. Singleton" are both about women facing the death penalty—one in 19th-century Scandinavia, the other in present-day Pennsylvania—but what they most have in common is a steely, mature prose style normally associated with late-career writing.

The sudden scarcity of leading literary figures doing regularly formidable work means that newcomers are largely unafflicted by anxieties of influence. They feel free to choose their guides for themselves, which means that Caleb Crain's "Necessary Errors," which evokes Henry James and Elizabeth Bowen, jostles on bookstore tables next to Sergio De La Pava's "Personae," an edgy homage to Samuel Beckett and Paul Auster. And alongside them is such diverse fare as Peter Orner's Saul Bellow-inspired short stories ("Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge"); Alejandro Zambra's lovely, feather-light novella about Pinochet's Chile ("Ways of Going Home"); and Jeff Backhaus's serenely beautiful "Hikikomori and the Rental Sister," with its rippling echoes of Japanese great Yasunari Kawabata.

The book scene right now has no dominant school or style, no clear movement which any new writer needs to align himself with or rebel against. Though that can make publishing look scattered and chaotic—and may appear to provide starvation rations of indispensable literary fiction if one is judging by headliner publications only—the situation is actually thrilling. Our blossoming young writers are venturing into the future with maps of their own making.
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