Kunkel makes five basic points about the past decade's American literature:
- like all decades, the rate of change has been slow; thus, the 2000s are more characterized by what he calls "the perennial novel" than by anything else. Kunkel returns to this point at the end by invoking the dread term "middlebrow": "The disappearance of the term 'middlebrow' over the last decades only confirms the triumph of the thing itself: enjoyable books, not too trashy, not too hard, sentimental and well-plotted but not so much so as to totally traduce the world."
- yet this perennial novel has also gravitated toward a greater degree of self-consciousness in its traditionalism, to a "neotraditionalism"—an attraction toward well-rounded characters, accident and coincidence as crucial plotting devices, and "a relatively high degree of sentimentality"
- perhaps as a subset of this neotraditionalism (I think it's a subset, although Kunkel may consider it something distinct—he does call it "another big development," which is a pretty ample overstatement) is what Kunkel's confrère Marco Roth has termed the "neuronovel," a category with which I have some issues, but which is defined here simply as a book "in which novelists bless or afflict their characters with one or another recognizable neurological disorder." Kunkel and Roth adduce Rivka Galchen, John Wray, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Lethem, Mark Haddon, and Richard Powers (two of whom are English) as exemplars
- Kunkel waves away what many feel to be a significant development in the last ten year's fiction: the "genre-bending" or incorporation of genre elements into "literary" fiction. This trend, Kunkel says, "shouldn’t be given too much credit for formal experimentation or artistic bravery: remodeling a house is not the same as architecture."
- fifth, Kunkel basically repeats the Katie Roiphe argument that, in Kunkel's words, "a fair amount of fiction by younger writers of the 0’s celebrates moral and sexual innocence and therefore childhood if not childishness." Roiphe used Kunkel as an example in her essay, and the point must have stung a bit. At any rate, Kunkel adds some intellectual firepower to Roiphe's thesis by bringing in Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel, which I've discussed here.
Turning to what is left out of his account, I am surprised that Kunkel doesn't touch on what I see as the most significant development of the past ten year's literature, which is mostly a sort of personnel change: a large percentage of the most successful novelists have immediate roots in a country other than the U.S. The internationalism or transnationalism of the American novel has become even more direct, less about the struggle for assimilation among the second generation and more about the efforts of the first generation to cope with the transplantation. I'm sure you can fill in your own examples.
Secondly, and maybe this is just a factor of what I've been reading and not a genuine trend, but it seems to me that the comic novel has gotten a new lease on life in the 2000s with Sam Lipsyte, James Hynes, and Ken Kalfus (among others) leading the way. Or, perhaps, this is again a return to a sort of traditionalism—to a more classic form of the comic novel as established by Waugh—and a turn away from the more antic comedy of, say, Vonnegut (although his latter-day disciple George Saunders is obviously going strong).
Thirdly, one should make mention of the proliferation of what might be called peri-literature—books about authors or characters from the classics, books that in a sense take up a position around "Capital-L Literature" (hence the prefix peri-). One might also call it, simply, fan fiction, although generally that term is used demeaningly or at least deprecatorily. Examples of peri-literature range from Colm Tóibín's The Master (Henry James) to Edmund White's Hotel de Dream (Stephen Crane) to Jerome Charyn's The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson to the plethora of books about Jane Austen or her characters (e.g., The Jane Austen Book Club, the Pemberley Chronicles) to the Android Karenina type books. This, if anything, is the real sign of a neotraditionalism at work in the fiction of the 2000s, and not some "practical and an ideological return to 'realism,'" which I suspect may be a sort of cover-term for "domestic fiction." The examples given (Franzen, Zadie Smith, Haslett) lead me to wonder if this isn't the case and if a gripe about domesticity wasn't, essentially, Kunkel's point all along.