On a recent Saturday night, a cocky 21-year-old college sophomore named Zaki was making time with Rory, a doe-eyed high-school senior. “I’m a fan of Eggers,” said Rory, referring to novelist Dave Eggers. He was the reason she had paid $25 to Ticketmaster and piled into a smoky nightclub in downtown Philadelphia with 500 other kids decked out in retro sneakers, bed-heads and winking T-shirts.
Not that she’d ever read either of Mr. Eggers’ books. “I’m going to,” she said shyly.
The worldly Zaki had read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius . “Just all the press he got, all the incredible acclaim he got, that’s what attracted me to him,” he said. And then the stage came alive: “Ladies and gentleman: Mr. Dave Eggers!”
There he was! Dave Eggers! In a black T-shirt and jeans, he bounced onstage at his crinkly-eyed, curly-haired orphan best. The crowd cheered. Mr. Eggers soaked in the adulation. He was the headliner in his own touring literary rock festival, entitled, winsomely, “McSweeney’s vs. They Might Be Giants.”
Yes, it’s good to be a novelist nowadays. Especially a young novelist: Just a week earlier in Frankfurt, Germany, book-publishing executives were scratching each other’s eyes out for the rights to publish the first novel and short-story collection by 29-year-old Hannah Tinti, a former agency assistant. Susan Kamil at Dial Press paid an amount that one source pegged at $500,000 for it, putting Tinti into the growing ranks of under-40 writers who have gotten big advances for as-yet-unwritten fiction, including former New Yorker assistant Nell Freudenberger, who accepted a $100,000 offer last year for a collection of stories she’s still working on. The publishers who are paying out this money aren’t doing it blindly. This summer’s improbable buzz over Everything Is Illuminated , the pyrotechnic Holocaust novel by 25-year-old Jonathan Safran Foer, was not lost on Miramax Books head Jonathan Burnham: “Sitting on a jitney one afternoon this summer, that was the book that came out of everyone’s Kate Spade bag,” Mr. Burnham said.
Just as Frankfurt was giddily winding down, at the Puck Building, the state of mind among young aspiring filmmakers at the Independent Feature Project’s annual film market was practically funereal. Jeff Lipsky, co-founder of 90′s New York upstart companies October Films and Lot 47, seemed to be upbraiding the nearly 100 people who had come to hear him speak. “If 10 people in this room actually end up getting their features made, nine of them I guarantee will be terrible,” he said to the anxiety-stricken crowd. Soon he referred to the Sundance Film Festival, which 10 years ago was the place that made cinematic success a realistic possibility for everyday artists, as “that festival in January in the middle of Buttfuck, Utah,” or, more succinctly, “Stardance.”
What happened to all the kids with a story to tell who went to sleep at night dreaming of becoming the next Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith or Ed Burns, maxing out their parents’ credit cards, starting a Sundance bidding war and getting famous, just like Matt and Ben? Now they’re told at every turn that the market for first features is dead. It’s the young literati who seem to have a direct channel into pop culture-and financial rewards.
The mark of this new literature is that it’s accessible without being dumb. Literary, but also pop. When Vibe magazine recently sent British novelist Zadie Smith to L.A. to interview Eminem, the two hit it off-the rapper reportedly told Ms. Smith that he had enjoyed her award-winning 2000 debut novel White Teeth . Ms. Smith was thrilled, declaring herself a huge Eminem fan. It’s not surprising. She and Eminem are a perfect match for each other and for the moment. They share a signature style, a hopped-up blend of word-drunk verbal dexterity and manically inventive narratives. It’s a combination that, when it works, works equally well on the page or on a CD, but doesn’t really call out for the big screen-although, not surprisingly, Eminem is trying his hand at the movies: He’s starring in this winter’s buzzed-about film 8 Mile .
In the book world, David Foster Wallace may have perfected that kind of sensibility a decade ago, but the kids have taken the ball and run with it: You can find that Eminem flavor in novels as diverse as Mr. Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated , Gary Shteyngart’s delirious immigrant tale The Russian Debutante’s Handbook , and recent MacArthur Award winner Colson Whitehead’s American-history-steeped riff on junket journalism, John Henry Days .
Far from making them seem stuffy or out of touch with the present moment, the historical ambition of these novelists are helping them gain readers. “Clichéd as it is to say, last year’s events left almost everybody feeling embarrassed not just about their lack of historical knowledge, but about their near-total lack of historical curiosity,” said Heather O’Donnell, a fellow in the English department at Princeton University. “These novels provide evidence that people younger than Kissinger have thought about the last hundred years of world history, and the novelists themselves acquire a kind of statesmanlike aura as a result.”
Many of the writers may be younger than Kissinger, but few people who have been to authors’ readings lately would deny that there’s a growing sense of cultural authority emanating from novelists. In fact, the new popularity of readings as social events suggests to Norman Mailer that a significant social shift is underway. “In the 70′s and 80′s, Yev Tushenko and Voznesensky, who were both on the dissident edge of Soviet literature, used to give concert readings of their poetry to stadiums filled with 20,000 people,” Mr. Mailer said.
Even the President appears to be paying attention. After perusing Dear Mr. President (Knopf), the first novel by Gabe Hudson, which was first excerpted in The New Yorker Debut Fiction issue in 2001, Mr. Bush was moved to take time out from planning his conquest of Iraq and pen a two-paragraph note on White House stationery, calling Mr. Hudson’s work “unpatriotic,” “ridiculous” and “just plain bad writing.” (Mr. Hudson is taking bids from magazines to publish President Bush’s letter.)
“There’s a sense among young people and those who make it that fiction can be central to the culture,” said Kurt Andersen, the host of the radio program Studio 360 , who is at work on his second novel for Random House. “There was a conventional wisdom among the older generations that it was a marginalized endeavor. To see it be a central cultural product for kids today, that’s all to the good. The only caveat is the problems that being a rock star or any kind of celebrity sensation presents.”
But even without the big screen, literary fame is now a legitimate end in itself. As one book scout put it, “I think it’s the older writers who are far more interested in writing a book that is going to be optioned for the movies. Young people think that they are expressing original ideas. I don’t think Nick [McDonnell, the 18-year-old author of Twelve ] was thinking, ‘Oh boy, I’m going to write a book for the movies.’” Why should they fret about film options when they can get handsomely paid for writing novels, anyway?
Film fame may be losing some of its mystique-it’s not such an exotic, tabooed dream for writers in an era in which the other branches of cultural production no longer seem so glamorously set apart from the literary world. The bond between the Cambridge-educated Ms. Smith and Eminem, the high-school dropout from Michigan, is a case in point. It’s more than just the kind of cutesy-intellectual high-low alliance that gave birth to a thousand Brown semiotics majors’ term papers. Writers like Ms. Smith don’t feel they have to give up on a mass audience in order to say serious things. We’re reaching the end of an era in which obscurity plays as intelligence; date its demise from the publication of Jonathan Franzen’s takedown of super-convoluted postmodern novelist William Gaddis last month in The New Yorker . And yet it’s not that the new literary stars are rejecting the ethos of high-toned literary deconstruction they learned in their college English classes-they’ve already assimilated it, along with their MTV and their hip-hop, and along with an easy acceptance of fame and money as marks of their literary prowess. As Geoff Shandler, an editor at Little, Brown, put it, young authors today “all went through, in one form or another, the postmodernist academic wringer, so they were used to peeking under the surfaces of things as well as fostering collisions and (sometimes too obviously) pumping irony.”
Young writers with an intellectual bent are disassociated from the academic world now-some are M.F.A. graduates, but none, so far, are teaching in M.F.A. programs, like their elders have traditionally done to make ends meet. But if they’re not university-supported, they’re not hostile to the academy, either. Zadie Smith, in fact, recently started a Radcliffe Ph.D. program. Michel Faber, the author of the unlikely historical-fiction megahit The Crimson Petal and the White , spent years on Victoriana list-serves getting answers to his research questions from academics.
“There’s no reason that the cultural environment surrounding literature has to be as stuffy and academic as it’s been for the past 20 years,” said Neal Pollack, whose Neal Pollack’s Anthology of American Literature was McSweeney’s first title as a publishing house. “The indie-rock literary circuit will really help writers who have just started-get them on the bill with a bigger-name writer. That’s how you discover bands a lot of times.” Why not bring on the band itself, while the publishers are at it? “If publishers are going to send writers around the country to do tours anyway, why not mix in some beer, and why not put a band on the bill, too?” Mr. Pollack said.
“In my dream,” Mr. Pollack added, “this is like 1981 or 1982 for indie rock, and 10 years from now, some Kurt Cobain figure is going to blast into the public consciousness and die tragically.”
Funny he should mention Cobain. Remembering an interview she did with the Nirvana singer in 1993, Darcey Steinke, a novelist who teaches in the New School’s graduate writing program, remembered telling him how difficult it was to get people to come to readings. “He was so sweet and naïve,” Ms. Steinke said. “He didn’t have any idea about readings; he assumed it was the same, that you had your mosh pit.” Mr. Cobain told her: “You got to get people in that place where they have a few drinks and are looking at each other like there’s a lot of possibility, a lot of hope for love.”
Let’s not leave out the role of the Internet in creating the new breed of writers: They were “forged in a cultural melange of indie rock, the Macintosh computer and the entrepreneurial ethos of the Clinton era,” as Mr. Shandler of Little, Brown, put it. But what the Internet lacked was narrative. And so thirsty minds began to lap up the stories-which were often as fractured and hyperactive as the Internet itself, but still stories. “Our ability to concentrate is continually channeled into sprints,” said Ms. O’Donnell of Princeton. “These novels are like marathons: They stretch people. We look at these novelists like personal trainers, with a combination of gratitude and resentment.”
In this atmosphere, literary outsiderness is becoming more and more difficult to pull off. Even McSweeney’s is already outgrowing its fringe roots: The next issue will be edited by Pulitzer-prize winning author Michael Chabon, who called Mr. Eggers a “genius” and an “impresario” who has mastered the art of literary carnival-barking. “A long time ago,” he said, “you would have to be like Norman Mailer, who ran for Mayor, to accomplish the same thing.” When Mr. Eggers offered Mr. Chabon the chance to guest-edit Mc-Sweeney’s -overseeing an issue dedicated to genre fiction that will include Stephen King-Mr. Chabon said he was thrilled. “It’s like when Orson Welles was given the chance to direct Citizen Kane . He said, ‘I felt like I was given the greatest train set ever.’”
But not everyone in the literary world is ready to get on what looks, at times, like a runaway train. Is accessibility always a good destination for literature? What will it mean for fiction if the rising generation no longer sees a clear stylistic distinction, for example, between novels and screenplays? Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is often used as a case in point. “I don’t think it’s fair to say his motives were cynical,” said the New Republic literary critic James Wood, “but it’s clear that what he wanted to do was take what he liked about [Don] De Lillo and make it accessible. The result was to take the strength of a certain intellectual and literary tradition and mix it with a broader, more popular form, and so The Corrections does have about it the feel of a miniseries or saga.”
What’s more, who knows whether the money being lavished on unestablished novelists is going to hinder their development? After all, a lack of money-and a lack of endless free time to write-have always been powerful literary muses. Mr. Wood sounded another note of caution: Not every worthy writer will strike it rich. “The extraordinary sales of Jonathan Franzen or Alice Sebold [whose novel The Lovely Bones has sold 1.6 million copies so far] suggests that we may be in a new place that’s a difficult one for most writers. I think there’s an increasing pressure that novelists will feel: to have a book with prestige, it must also sell well.”