FOR SEVEN DECADES, we’ve been studying American novels by talking about “postmodern” and “postwar,” the latter a category that has outlasted its usefulness, at least since the death of Norman Mailer. But in making finer distinctions about books, why wouldn’t presidencies serve as well as decades? You can match the heroes of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road with JFK; and you can trace Reaganite excess through Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero to its derangement during Bush I in American Psycho to the recovery narratives and Clintonian delirium in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
The era of George W. Bush had its own myths, and they started to fade as soon as he retired to Texas and took up painting. We’d had our fill of 9/11 novels, and superheroes like those who’d surged into literary texts—as in Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude and Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days—now saturate our screens. There were the “Brooklyn Books of Wonder,” to use the critic Melvin Bukiet’s term for the era’s turn toward the adolescent. There was also a vogue for what we might call humanitarian lit: privileged, often white American novelists telling the stories, and occasionally writing from the point of view, of Third World refugees, as in Dave Eggers’s What Is the What. Perhaps exhausted with depression and its medication as subject matter (see the Gary section of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections), novelists took up neuroatypical heroes, as in Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker and Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances. It was, above all, a phase of elaborate fictions.
What will we mean when someday we refer to Obama Lit? I think we’ll be discussing novels about authenticity, or about “problems of authenticity.” What does that mean? After the Bush years, sheer knowingness and artifice that called attention to itself had come to seem flimsy foundations for the novel. Authenticity succeeded storytelling abundance as the prime value of fiction, which meant that artifice now required plausible deniability. The new problems for the novelist became, therefore, how to be authentic (or how to create an authentic character) and how to achieve “authenticity effects” (or how to make artifice seem as true or truer than the real).
That we’ve been passing through an era that especially prizes authenticity in fiction is no coincidence. These were years when America was governed by someone who’d written a genuine literary self-portrait, whose identity was inscribed with the traumas of the age of colonialism and its unraveling, whose political appeal hinged on an aura of authenticity and whose opponents attacked him by casting doubt on the authenticity of that identity. Now, as he leaves the scene, we’re troubled by questions of fakeness—a moment of fake news but