Not long ago the winners of the American Book Awards for 1985 were announced: Don DeLillo’s White Noise in fiction and Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground in nonfiction. Thankfully for the purveyors of the awards, which have been controversial lately, it was a quiet year. Nobody much complained. Both books were by well-known, veteran authors, both were well received, neither wore the glossy sheen of commercialism. God’s in his Heaven; it seems churlish to disrupt the claim. But since the American Book Awards brought it up, it seems to me that when you hold the two books side by side, the work of fiction is clearly the lesser one. Whatever literature is, Common Ground comes closer to it than does White Noise. White Noise is funnier and more adept in its use of language. But reading Common Ground, and not White Noise, one has the feeling this is life; its characters are unruly, proud, idealistic, failure-prone, and deep but also ordinary—like Huckleberry Finn, it presents ordinariness and nobility as residing in everyone. By recounting the history of busing in Boston through the detailed history of three families and profiles of several public figures, it creates a rich tableau of American urban life, while also showing how our grandest dreams run aground.

If busing is Lukas’s symbol of the American condition, DeLillo’s is a large, vague, menacing cloud of toxic waste that invades the sunny middle-American college town where White Noise is set. In Common Ground we’re brought down by our inability to be as good, in our social selves, as we think we are. Everything is spun out of a dense web of human character and motivation. In White Noise, the enemy is inanimate and extrinsic: the cloud and, in a larger sense, death. There’s no reason for DeLillo to explore people’s souls, and by and large, he doesn’t.

I don’t mean to be dogmatic about what the proper subject matter for great fiction must be. In particular, I want to give a wide berth to two much-discredited criticisms of American literature. The first is that the American novel is too negative in its view of American life. Over the years, critics who believe this have consistently overpraised “affirmative” novels that quickly fade into well-deserved obscurity and have argued against the merits of works of real genius. Today it seems to be a permanent oddity of the freest and richest society in history that it can’t produce self-celebratory art—it’s a quirk in our national character—but that in no way justifies a dismissal of the grand procession of negative novelists, from Melville and Hawthorne on.

The second criticism is that the American novel isn’t doing a good job of producing a realistic portrait of American life. It’s true that social realism hasn’t been the hallmark of American fiction for the past 40 years, but, as has been proven time and again, strict realism is not the one true path to greatness in the novel. Novelists should be judged on the basis of their skill as novelists, not as reporters, though a reportorial gift has been an important talent of many novelists. Sinclair Lewis and John O’Hara would have been first-rate reporters, but William Faulkner, a much greater novelist, would not.

The case for Common Ground over White Noise can be made without resorting to calling DeLillo either insufficiently affirmative or insufficiently realistic. Common Ground is the much more negative and depressing of the two books in its view of ordinary American life. White Noise is about people who live pleasant (though troubled) lives, and it ends on an upbeat (though strange) note, while Common Ground deals with poverty and with the hopelessness of our major social problem. Lukas is more realistic, but the territory on which DeLillo’s novel takes place, Campusland USA, is one he obviously knows well, and he evokes it with great good humor. The problem with White Noise is more that its vision is too easily achieved, too pat.

Maybe DeLillo thinks a floating, unconnected menace says what he wants to say better than would a tragedy of misguided idealism? Well, maybe. But literature almost always has a relationship to its society; it doesn’t have to be about society, in the manner of Trollope, but it’s difficult for it to be completely self-referential either. Can you think of a great novel that doesn’t address and say profound things about life outside the author’s cranium? Cervantes evoked Spain; Joyce, Ireland; Tolstoy, Russia; Proust, France; Dickens, England; Faulkner, the South—and, not just accidentally, they did so on the way to revealing truths about the soul. A sense of society enriches fiction and helps it accomplish what it can. DeLillo’s sense of our society is not compelling; it’s what keeps White Noise from being great, not as journalism, but as a work of literary art. Other contemporary American novelists of high skill and ambition have the same insufficiency of richness in their social vision and hence in their literary achievement. It’s not that these novelists aren’t doing justice to American society. It’s that the sense of society that they project—whether positive or negative, realistic or fabulous—is not conducive to literature.

White Noise, for its first 75 or 100 pages, reads almost like a parody of the standard intellectual’s condemnation of American life—or at least it manages, like the early James Bond movies, to be both part of a genre and a parody of the genre at the same time. Its hero, Jack Gladney (byline: J.A.K. Gladney) is a professor, a lovable fraud who has carved out an eminence for himself as the founder and chairman of the Hitler Studies department at his university. This gives him a chance to muse pretentiously about horror and death in a setting of banal, commercialized America. There are long scenes at the supermarket. All Gladney’s ex-wives are ex-CIA agents. He worries obsessively about environmental disasters. The combination of what appears to be a comfortable, happy existence with constant hints of apocalypse—DeLillo is making fun of the professoriate, isn’t he? “The emptiness, the sense of cosmic darkness. Mastercard, VISA, American Express”—is a joke, right?

When the toxic cloud arrives and the Gladneys have to be evacuated, it seems as though DeLillo might still be kidding. Gladney’s wife reads aloud to a group of evacuees a hilarious series of Jeane Dixon-style predictions from a tabloid: “From beyond the grave, dead living legend John Wayne will communicate telepathically with President Reagan to help frame U.S. foreign policy. Mellowed by death, the strapping actor will advocate a hopeful policy of peace and love.” But at this point, alas, the fake-ominous mood begins to turn real-ominous. When Gladney muses, “The tabloid future, with its mechanism of hopeful twist to apocalyptic events, was perhaps not so very remote from our own immediate experience,” DeLillo seems really to mean it.

There’s one more funny scene when the evacuees realize they are being sent home without having gotten TV coverage (“Don’t they know it’s real? Shouldn’t the streets be crawling with cameramen and soundmen and reporters? Shouldn’t we be yelling out the window at them, ‘Leave us alone, we’ve been through enough, get out of here with your vile instruments of intrusion'”). After that, it’s overwhelmingly serious. In the end Gladney, tormented by a constant, nagging fear of death—that’s the white noise of a supermarket or a car radio—finds a measure of respite, or redemption, or something, in a bloody shoot-out with his wife’s lover.

DeLillo’s toxic cloud, in other words, takes over not only his made-up town, but his novel, too, casting a pall of vague ominousness, unconnected to anyone’s actions, over what began as a delightful comedy. Death, it’s true, is vaguely ominous and usually undeserved. I think, however, DeLillo means the cloud to stand also for the life we live. The transition from the beginning of White Noise to the end is jarring because, under the ground rules DeLillo has set up, life’s twists literally just descend from the sky—therefore there’s no need for him to create a sense of the complexity of human interaction. Projected out, this implies a society that’s sick in a kind of assumed, unproven way, without there being anything specifically wrong with it.

Of the critics who reviewed White Noise, the one who articulated this aspect of it best was Diane Johnson, who wrote in The New York Review of Books what amounts to a theoretical defense of the novel of unreality. She said that “novels of the person in society or the universe, making his or her way and making judgments on it” constitute “a distinguished tradition from Gulliver to Greene,” but that it is “harder than ever to succeed in, now that plots demand an extreme imagination if they are to surpass what is furnished by mere reality.” That is, modern life has become so crazy that it’s impossible to write the old-fashioned novel, and in fact unreality in fiction so well reflects the world around us that it’s the true heir to the tradition of the novel of society. I doubt that the link between action and consequence has been severed in Johnson’s own life, but she is so sure it has in everyone else’s that she winds up taking the incredible position that those who accuse DeLillo of posturing (as did Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post) are really attacking realistic fiction: “Without a willingness to engage the problems of the world, around him, we would not have the novels of Dickens.” White Noise represents engagement? Where are you, Orwell, when we need you?

Crude background

It’s important to note that DeLillo is not the only one who portrays ordinary American life from the assumption that it’s nightmarish and random. Most novelists choose not to try to infuse their work with an overall notion of our society, but usually the most accomplished and ambitious ones do, perhaps mindful that the most distinguished of their predecessors did, too. Last year, there were two novels besides White Noise that had a broad vision of America and were given the major-book treatment by critics: Continental Drift by Russell Banks and Carpenter’s Gothic by William Gaddis. I don’t single these out at random; other highly praised novels, for instance, The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler, were less ambitious in the social sense, and other ambitious social novels, like Texas by James Michener, didn’t deserve to be, and weren’t, taken seriously.

Continental Drift is, by design, a throwback to the Dreiser-Dos Passos-Steinbeck school of gritty American realism. It’s about an oil-burner salesman in New Hampshire, Bob Dubois, who has an epiphany while Christmas shopping, smashes the windows of his station wagon, and decides to move his family to the Sunbelt—Central Florida, fast-money country. In his new setting, he begins an inexorable process of self-destruction that ends with his smuggling Haitians into the country and then being killed. But the tragic potential of the story isn’t realized because there’s a sense of foregone conclusions rather than of dashed hope. Piloting his Haitian-filled boat toward the coast, Bob imagines telling one of his passengers what’s in store: “America! Land, ho! Only, like Columbus and all those guys looking for the Fountain of Youth, when you finally get to America, you get something else. You get Disney World and land deals and fast-moving high-interest bank loans, and if you don’t get the hell out of the way, they’ll knock you down, cut you up with a harrow and plow you under, so they can throw some condos up on top of you or maybe a parking lot or maybe an orange grove.”

It’s not just poor and working-class people who are ground to dust by society in Continental Drift; Banks uses the same mode of wooden condemnation to describe the lives of the bourgeoisie, for instance in this passage about vacationers driving down Interstate 95: “These people in an expensive hurry to have fun before heading back to their sad, workaday lives in Cleveland, Birmingham, and Bridgeport, their lives of high-tech retraining programs, day-long prowls through suburban malls to stock the house the bank keeps threatening to take away, lives with life insurance, dog food, and kitty litter, lawn mowers, orthodonture, special-ed and school-desegregation programs, lives that on the outside seem stable, rational, desirable, but on the inside persist in feeling strangely fragile, out of control, compulsive, and boring.” Of course it would be possible for such sentiments to be at the heart of a work of literary art, but here they’re not—they work against the interests of art because they’re an arbitrary overlay, unearned. Banks doesn’t show us, in the manner of Babbitt, that these lives are strangely fragile; it’s just an assumption, or even a prejudice. If Banks had written Huckleberry Finn, Huck would have turned Jim in because in America, you can’t fight the system. Bob’s decline and fall would be much more resonant if it weren’t for the occasional vision-of-America passage that makes it seem a matter of course.

The same problem—good foreground, crude background—occurs in a different form in Carpenter’s Gothic. The action is as constricted as a play’s: there are only four main characters, and every scene takes place in a lonesome old house on the banks of the Hudson River. Writing almost entirely in fragments of dialogue, without quotation marks or atribution. Gaddis is amazingly skillful at bringing alive his characters’ interlocking pathologies.

Offstage, though, is the most slobbering, greedy, uncouth Middle America imaginable, spreading its stain of pseudo-religious corruption across the innocent world. There is a Jerry Falwell-style southern fundamentalist who’s in league with corrupt politicians and with the executives of a minerals conglomerate called Voraker Consolidated Resources; the characters in the old house are variously involved in the evildoings, which are meant to lend world significance to their personal drama. All the beautiful subtle touches in Gaddis’s evocation of his characters’ lives are counterweighted by contemptuous, sledgehammering cliches about the booboisie. There’s an Ur-boondocks called Smackover, a stronghold of the Falwell character (there really is a Smackover, in southern Arkansas, by the way); the hero of Carpenter’s Gothic says about it, “People get up in the morning and go to bed at night in Smackover until the day they die and go someplace else, someplace that must look like Smackover at two in the morning.” And a little later: “These smug idiots with their pious smiles they can’t stand the idea they’re descended from that gang at Lake Rudolf banging around with stone hammers trying to learn something no, they think God put them here in their cheap suits and bad neckties in his own image….” As in the other two novels, what’s annoying about this isn’t that it’s condemnatory, or that it’s inaccurate, but that it’s flat—that, though meant to add, it subtracts from the work as art.

Not every leading American novelist sees the country in the same way. Saul Bellow is a neoconservative. John Updike can be sweet and elegiac. Counter-examples could march on forever. But I’d guess that the majority view in American letters today is still somewhere in the DeLillo-Banks-Gaddis area: American life is unreal and sterile for the middle class and degrading for the working class, and this is so obviously true that it’s not necessary to convince the reader of it.

Why does this view have such a strong hold, especially since it would seem to be the enemy of a writer who wants to be great? One possibility is that it’s true. It’s rare to see anyone say so directly—it’s rare for any widespread assumption to be stated—so it’s worth quoting at length someone making the case. This is from The American Novel and the Way We Live Now, by John W. Aldridge, a professor at the University of Michigan and a veteran critic with a reputation for being somewhat cranky but serious:

We now take it for granted—and the fact creates around us a subliminal envelope of rehabilitating drama—that we inhabit a world in which violence of any and every kind can erupt anywhere and everywhere at any time with or without provocation or meaning. This is a world that some few of us experience every day, but for the rest of us it exists as an abstraction projected and often seemingly created by the reality-manufacturing and reality-fantasizing media of television and film. Our direct experience is usually of another kind of abstraction, an urban or suburban non-community in which we are perhaps most conscious of floating in disconnection between business and home, passing and being passed by strangers in the void. Home is a place of brief refuge from the void, where family offers a substitute for community even as house functions as a frontier stockade erected against the disorienting ambiguities of existence in non-community. Business or profession provides an illusion of connection with people whose only connection with us and with one another is coterminous activity within the same ‘facility’ or ‘structure.’ At intervals that have grown less and less frequent with the passage of time, the separate orbiting entities of business and home may, for ceremonial reasons, be momentarily joined, and strangers from the one will be imported into the other, given food and enough to drink to ensure that they will not be able to notice that they have nothing to say to one another. Anesthesia is the only possible means of coping with a situation in which nothing can be communicated among people for whom the terms and materials of communication, the shared histories and common assumptions of purpose and value, have ceased to exist.

On the other hand, let’s consider the possibility that America isn’t that way at all—that it’s a society in which, in fact, there are shared assumptions and values to a remarkable degree, and where nearly everyone feels that there is something at stake in his life, that his actions will make a difference. Therefore the social sphere of plan, action, and consequence—the sphere Diane Johnson and John Aldridge say doesn’t exist anymore—in truth is exactly where the national life takes place. Certainly it’s the sphere where my life takes place and where most novelists’ lives take place, and where their main characters’ lives usually take place too. It’s just for the society as a whole that, somehow, the rules are different. Perhaps the view that American life is pervasively unreal comes not from close study of the country, but from something about the literary life.

Every novelist needs material—it isn’t an abstract medium. Typically the first novelist gets his material from his own early life. What then? Some novelists find that the life of their own community provides the raw material for literature—Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor would be examples. Some can draw on their youth forever, some on the endless richness of their own thoughts. But even in the very front rank (for example, Norman Mailer and Philip Roth), running out of material becomes increasingly a worry with passing years.

The reason is that experience is the wellspring of literary material, and in the main, the American writer’s range of experience has become narrower over the years. Can anyone really doubt that a wide range of experience is important to a novelist? Cervantes was a soldier, a slave, and a bureaucrat; Tolstoy was a nobleman, a teacher, and an urban swinger; Dostoevsky was an engineer and a political prisoner; Dickens was a court reporter, Melville went to sea, and Twain worked in the West and on the Mississippi. Even in high-modernist America, writers write from their own lives. The experience of serving in World War II incubated the talents of Mailer and James Jones. Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison could write about the great migration of rural southern blacks to the North because they had lived it. Updike didn’t get Rabbit Angstrom’s Pennsylvania town from watching television, nor Roth the old Jewish Newark, nor Bellow his Chicago of deep thinkers and con artists. Experience alone of course does not make one a novelist, but it’s a necessary part of the training.

Today, if the first novel about growing up is successful, the American novelist usually moves directly to a university campus, or (if the success is both critical and commercial) to the New York haut monde or (if it’s just commercial) to someplace warm like Beverly Hills or Aruba. Instantly, he’s cut off from all but a small group of people very much like himself, and there’s a fierce temptation to sketch in the rest of the world in his fiction by just fleshing out their hazy impressions and prejudices about what it’s like. We have many, many novels about writers or professors leading essentially solitary lives. On the other hand, the novelist whose life somehow gives him a way of seeing the rest of society so that he can use it in his work, like Louis Auchincloss, is regarded as an oddity, a man-bites-dog story.

One way out of the trap of being shut off from experience is to go out and seek it, expressly with the idea of gathering material for fiction. This was fairly common, not just in the nineteenth century in Europe but up until World War II in. America. Ernest Hemingway roamed the world in search of raw, vital adventure, partly because in those days serious novels sold better, so he could afford to. To prepare to write Arrowsmith, Sinclair Lewis went on a two-month sea cruise with the famous bacteriologist Paul DeKruif, in order, in the words of Mark Schorer’s biography of Lewis, “to educate Lewis in bacteriology and epidemiology and in the methods and spirit of research, to observe conditions in the tropics… and to work out on paper as complete an outline of the story as possible. They were equipped with a small library of medical textbooks, maps, and charts….” For Elmer Gantry he went to Kansas City, attended many church services, and actually preached himself. John Steinbeck, before writing The Grapes of Wrath, traveled extensively in migrant camps in California and read hundreds of pages of reports by government workers in the camps. Theodore Dreiser relied heavily on his early work as a journalist to the point of reproducing long passages from his newspaper stories verbatim in writing Sister Carrie.

Today, bestselling novelists of no artistic pretensions, like Michener and Arthur Hailey, still do lengthy research, but literary novelists usually don’t. There is the economic reason that they don’t have enough of an audience to pay travel expenses, and while the 1945-75 education boom created a comfortably salaried place for them, a teaching schedule makes it hard to get away. But the changing literary zeitgeist was probably even more important in taking novelists away away from experience. The idea steadily grew that all artists are geniuses whose highest achievement is a kind of pure creativity that expresses the full complexity and depth of the individual consciousness. There were high priest critics who said so, and it was just in the air in postwar bohemia, when society seemed dull and abstract artists were glamorous, daring figures. If the Holy Grail is genius-level expression of the self, then going to examine “conditions”—or even worrying about where to get material—seems less important. Isn’t every novelist’s brain permanently accessible to him? What else really matters?

A wonderful example is Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, his book about the 1967 march on the Pentagon. Having turned to journalism in part because he had run out of material, Mailer actually wrote (granted, brilliantly) about his own life as a middle-aged important novelist: Here I am speaking to the students about peace, while wondering whether Dwight MacDonald will give my latest book a good review. He perfectly captured the literary man’s odd combination of being obsessed with the progress of his own life, while also being convinced that the life of the nation was deranged and senseless. And the critical reception of The Armies of the Night was truly ecstatic.

There does now seem to be a slight swing back toward rummaging around for material. DeLillo, Banks, and Gaddis are all examples: DeLillo learned higher mathematics for an earlier novel called Ratner’s Star, Banks fills pages of Continental Drift with arcane Creole dialect and voodoo rituals, and Gaddis’s admirers always point to his work as a freelance corporate speechwriter as having given him special insights into the business culture. But that makes the results even more depressing—experience is supposed to teach you to stop sneering, to cure you of the temptation to think of the mass of people as fools, or pathetic victims, or emptyheaded bigots. Gaddis’s passages on Smackover, and Banks’s on the utter emptiness of the lives both the Haitian immigrants to Florida and of the members of the middle class to which they aspire, show that for them, the deepest lesson of experience is unlearned.

The reason for this, aside from the long-term effect of a cloistered life, must surely be the prophet-without-honor aspect of being a serious American novelist, which leads to a tendency toward self-pity and a contempt for society that’s so strong it can triumph over any material. For all but a handful of novelists, it’s not even that they’re hated—it is, worse, that the non-literary world is just unaware of them. (One key to Mailer is a desperate need to be noticed.) Put yourself in the shoes of a serious American novelist, someone just below the top five or six celebrities, for a moment. You’ve written six novels that have won the highest praise from the literary community, and you have been given its richest rewards: publication, professorships, grants. But your books sell 3,000, 5,000, 8,000 copies each. Not only are you a professor literally, you’re a professor in the sense that no one outside your field seems to know your work. You open the newspaper: President Reagan has decided to bestow a medal on a novelist, and it’s Louis L’ Amour. No wonder American life seems unreal. No wonder when you see throngs of happy-looking, well-fed people in the Safeway or the airport, you wonder what they can possibly be thinking about—wonder, that is, until you flip on the TV and it becomes apparent what the answer is. No wonder the alienation of your brethren in Europe, though born of totalitarianism and the ravages of war, seems an appealing stance. John Aldridge, in a more lucid moment than the one quoted above, points out that Lewis and Dreiser wrote with the expectation that they would be listened to, and so wrote to shock and to convince. A writer who thinks most people aren’t listening might use his writing as a way to return the compliment.

So the temptation for the American novelist is to disengage from society and from experience: it’s cheaper, it fits better with the current idea of genius, it’s easier on the legs, and it’s a political-cultural role that seems to make sense, given the place the country makes for its serious writers. White Noise is about a disengaged tragedy, Continental Drift is disengaged from its own characters, and Carpenter’s Gothic is disengaged from what’s supposed to be the menace hulking in the wings. None of them has at its core a sense of the promise and disappointment of every life. Disengagement is not the way to art—even Proust in his bed was deeply engaged intellectually in every nuance of the world his characters inhabited, and didn’t paint people as idiots or pawns. It leads to woodenness, even lifelessness; it leads away from the best lessons that a varied life can teach. What’s lost when novelists assume automatic postures about the social context in which they place their work is not so much the story of what’s going on in our country (though that is lost, too), but the chance to produce literature.

Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.