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February 9, 2010
Over the past few weeks I, like everyone else, have been subject to a deluge of obituaries and endearing articles regarding the passing of J.D. Salinger and Howard Zinn. At a time when Apple's iPad is being touted as the killer of Amazon's Kindle, which was touted as the killer of the traditional novel, it was a pleasure to read the mostly respectful, occasionally quite enlightening pieces paying homage to two of the most talented writers and thinkers to ever put pen to paper. Sorrowful events such as these can allow all of us (not just writers and publishers) to look at the big picture. Yet despite the deaths of such quintessential literary figures, few seem to be asking themselves what, or more precisely who, comes next in the literary progression. Where is the next Salinger? Who is the next Zinn? And, perhaps even more importantly, is another touchstone of cultural zeitgeist, a novel as culturally impacting as Catcher in the Rye, even possible in the era of Twitter?

When it comes to fiction, The Classics seem likely to always be the classics. In music, there were the Led Zeppelins and the Beatles, but there was also a Nirvana. In the literary world, there is a sense that the past couple of generations have been a wash; that we are still desperately searching for the next great writer in both areas of fiction and non-fiction. Salinger found his voice in a mercifully sympathetic teenage protagonist who attempted to disassociate himself from the 'fakes' and 'phonies' of society. His chillingly lustful understanding of disassociated angst and the discomfort the world can provide was a benchmark in American society's generational shift, a flag on the hill of cultural views from where one could see that post-WWII youth were not the same as their parents had been.

Catcher in the Rye did to fiction what Dylan's Blonde on Blonde did to rock music. It changed everything. It was the one book that I remember people in my high school actually reading from cover to cover. But enough praise has been heaped upon the novel, and homages can be found in the obituaries and articles of a great many publications like New York Times, The Times of London and Slate (the latter of which went on an overkill Salinger bender last month). The more pressing concern is about who is next. Where's the next transcendent American novel?

Transcendence is different than greatness. Sure, there are some excellent American writers out there. Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, and even David Sedaris could be considered amongst my contemporary favorites. But while these writers have been successful, they haven't been as commercially, academically, or culturally successful as Salinger was with a single novel. In terms of cultural value, 'success' is of course not purely defined by sales figures (we're not counting The Da Vinci Code here, okay). Catcher In the Rye not only wrapped the literary world around its finger, it broke that finger as well. It may be the most controversial novel in American history: some high schools teach it, others ban it, and it is famously associated with at least three murders and assassination attempts. Yet, clocking some quarter of a million units sold each year, it is still one of the highest grossing books in history. There exists no other contemporary novel to rival Catcher In the Rye in terms of social ambivalence, but love it or hate it few would deny the book the respect it deserves as a literary masterpiece.

Catcher In the Rye really has few rivals. The Lord of the Rings, written in 1954, will eventually be eclipsed by the resonance of its film adaptation. Even if his book weren't tied to a monumental cinema franchise, Tolkien inspired legions of fans but not a mass of culture. Leo Tolstoy is a lion of academia, but there are no generational waves of people identifying with Anna Karenina the way they do with Holden Caulfield. Salinger stands out in all of literary history, and looking to today's authors one is hard pressed to find a writer of remotely similar stature.

Take, for instance, the notable contemporary novel (and perhaps the closest to Salinger's masterpiece) The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen. While it is already on many lists of the best novels ever written, Franzen's book has had nowhere near the same cultural impact as Catcher In the Rye, even with a bit of time (was released in 2001). Twenty years from now, as today, most people, young or old, wealthy or poor, would still recognize Salinger's 1951 masterpiece, not Franzen's, if you held both books in front of them. The same goes for other great contemporary novels, such as American Pastoral (Roth) or Beloved (Toni Morrison), or [insert your favorite text here]. Good reads, but no Catcher In the Rye One has to wonder: in this day and age, when society is culturally fragmented in every conceivable way (magazines, newspapers, iPhone applications, et cetera.), is another Catcher in the Rye even possible? At this point, it seems unlikely.

The problem is of course saturation. The more choices we have about what to follow or read, the more invisible those choices become. Most blogs, magazines or literary journals are well on their way to specialization. This segmentation has led to depth at the expense of breadth, and the ability to span the ever-increasing gaps between readerships has been lost. The challenge is simple, yet conversely exceedingly difficult: to pen a book as culturally impacting as Catcher in the Rye, capturing academics and pop culturalists and disenchanted misfits simultaneously the way Salinger did half a century ago. Is it even possible today? Would Salinger himself even be up to the task?

As for Howard Zinn, that words on his passing have been far fewer than those in remembrance of Salinger speaks to the dwindling importance of history and philosophy at the hands of entertainment, for Zinn was no less important. And before Chomskyites start chastising me, I certainly acknowledge that Noam Chomsky's ideas and contributions to academic culture and the discourse on our cultural and political landscape are irreplaceable. However, his rise to prominence started during the Vietnam era, and his ideas, while traditionally influential, are beginning to fall short of entirely encapsulating new generations. In the past few decades author and professor Zinn, on the other hand, truly humanized history, and perhaps made it more genuine and tangible than anything one could read in traditional textbooks or see in documentaries. Chomsky chronicles and documents facts; Zinn looked for and found the estranged stories that weren't told, the repulsive violence that had been subdued, the beleaguered and constrained voices that were silenced, and he gave them not just context but a platform. If you haven't read A People's History of the United States, or Voices of A People's History of the United States, you are likely lacking familiarity with a large segment of history. That fact, which Zinn could shockingly point out, is not an affront to anyone's intelligence, but rather to the politicized revisionism of historical education. Following his death, Zinn's departure raises the same questions as Salinger's. And again the questions arise: Where do we go from here, and who is next?

Where are the great non-fiction writers and academics of our day? The few who will challenge and (hopefully) change the way we view our society? There are surely some intriguing and perhaps deserving candidates out there--Malcolm Gladwell, Richard Florida, and Naomi Klein to name a few. Though they have all had an impact on their contemporaries, it is still too early to tell whether those authors will change the course of non-fiction writing to the same extent that Zinn changed the course of historical writing.

In terms of challenging the revisionist establishment, Naomi Klein's No Logo could be the most relevant and influential book of our times, as it splendidly encapsulates the growing corporate influence in these burgeoning capitalistic times. Where academia and entertainment converge, Malcolm Gladwell has done a tremendous job demonstrating how sociological and psychological research can impact our lives. Somewhere between the oeuvre of Klein and Gladwell are Richard Florida's theories on how the creative class is revolutionizing businesses, communities, and geographical regions. As a dark horse, some consider Steven Leavitt (of Freakonomics fame and SuperFreakonomics infamy) is the next great academic-cum-writer, though many of his methods and statistics have been subject to criticism that can't simply be waived off as part of the culture war that Zinn came up against. All of these writers have produced exciting and entertaining work, but whether or not they will have the sort of lasting impact that Zinn did is still up for debate at this point. So far, they're the best we've come up with.

If critical thinkers and deft communicators like Malcolm Gladwell fail to impact social policies, or if dogged researchers and critics like Naomi Klein fail to extend their reach beyond the militant fringes and into larger society, it may prove impossible for one writer to challenge the assumptions of "knowledge" in the way that Zinn challenged history. Technology has transformed the dissemination of information, but it has also led to the same state of white noise that could force the next Catcher in the Rye into obscurity and irrelevance. What will it take to rise above the din?

Thus far, there are no obvious successors. If you have any suggestions as to who the next influential fiction or non-fiction writers of Salinger's and Zinn's stature might be, feel free to let me know, along with a short synopsis of your reasoning.

SEE ALSO: www.salinger.org
SEE ALSO: www.howardzinn.org

--
Brian Christopher Jones
A student living in Scotland and working toward a PhD in law.

See other articles by Brian Christopher Jones.

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