My best to sellers: The state of American literature

By Patrick Burke

Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Salinger, Faulkner—I’ll throw in Upton Sinclair for good measure, too—are all great American writers. Tragically, none of them will ever pick up a pen again. But one man has inherited their collective legacy of vigilant, insightful social criticism. One man has absorbed their collective uncompromising will to challenge literary boundaries. One virtuoso scrivener holds the future of American imaginative penmanship in his able hands. This man is, well, apparently the guy who writes about how the Vatican is hiding glowing, magical things all over the world in its invidious attempts to undermine stuff that’s just and good and more Protestant in nature.

Everybody read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Then everybody read Brown’s weaker pre–Da Vinci works. Now people can reread the new illustrated version of the The Da Vinci Code, so that any visualization errors the reader may have encountered as a result of the Ferrari-paced, generally mind-blowing plot can be remedied. Even if insulting a genuinely entertaining and creative piece of fiction is useless, from a self-righteously intellectualist perspective how can I not bemoan the dearth, not only of thought-provoking, soul-rending vintage American fiction, but of classic, gritty, compelling American nonfiction as well?

The current New York Times bestseller lists probably represent deeply inaccurate gauges of the trajectory of American literature at any given time. Nonetheless, I have to say that the current New York Times billboards are really depressing.

On top in fiction is Mitch Albom with For One More Day. In grad school, William Faulkner’s Light in August and As I Lay Dying made a turtleneck-wearing Albom guilty for frolicking through the high grasses on sunny days of eternal summers. Consequently, he decided to improve upon Mississippi Will and make crushing cosmic manifestations of the human coil perkier. We see such a Zoloft-ed Yoknapatawpha in his most recent gem. (On a personal note, I sincerely hope against hope that the star of the dramatization of Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, Hank Azaria, stars in the made-for-TV movie of For One More Day. I really thought the multi-vocal Simpsons legend was going the drama route after that cameo in Heat. It should have been Pacino in the end—Bobby D was so close, so close.)

Lording it over nonfiction is that author we’re all so glad decided not to sell out in the law profession so that we have something to read in airports—namely, John Grisham. King Grisham, who could write a book claiming Babe Ruth corked his bat and still sell millions, continues to raise the bar. Many thought that after the edgy Skipping Christmas Grisham had simply gone too far. Insatiably dangerous, however, Grisham is back in black with The Innocent Man, asking a question even he has never dared to ask before: “and justice for all”?

Bob Woodward matches the versatile Grisham in what he does best. Woodward’s new exposé State of Denial tells us that our President is bad—real bad—and sometimes confused as well. Woodward has some actual interviews and statements to verify this groundbreaking discovery. My eyes are finally open, yet I admit that ignorance was bliss.

Is Salinger still alive somewhere in the Connecticut woods? Hasn’t Harvard amassed a big enough endowment yet to divest him of any new novels so America can read again? Maybe Jonathan Franzen will give us a quick fix sometime soon with a recycled Don Delillo novel disguised as a recycled Philip Roth novel with Gentile protagonists. I’m not forgetting about Philip Roth, but Nathan Zuckerman is slowly becoming more loathsome than self-loathing. All pessimism and unqualified trivialization of National Book Award winners aside, I have faith in the triumphant return of the American literary tradition. But until then, Aaron Sorkin is the de facto American writer extraordinaire. I’d give at least Fitzgerald to bring back SportsNite.