Generation shifts, in literary terms, don’t happen all at once, but in shades. A few years ago it seemed John Updike, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, and Saul Bellow would never not be writing and publishing and dominating critical debate. With Roth’s retirement this winter, all of them have entered the long and more brutal critical test of time.
In their absence a debate runs about the nature of the novel, a conversation that takes its cues mostly from British novelists. Has the novel, as Will Self has written, betrayed modernism’s advances and settled into a dreary realism? Or as Zadie Smith and Tom McCarthy have argued, are there ways to saturate a social novel with once-cutting-edge narrative techniques?