One of the dominant literary forms of the 20th century was what people are now calling the Sad White Man Novel. Each of these novels gives us a middle class man who is successful enough – good job, marriage, children, house – but deeply dissatisfied with his mediocre lot in life and yearning to break free. One of the most famous examples was The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson (1955). Wilson gave us an advertising executive – i.e., somebody who has a cool, with-it career – who anguished over the limits of his boring life and fantasized about throwing it over and disappearing onto the open road.
In an interesting essay, John Self identifies the prototype as Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis (1922). Babbitt describes himself as
the perfect office-going executive — a well-fed man in a correct brown soft hat and frameless spectacles, smoking a large cigar, driving a good motor along a semi-suburban parkway. . .but keeps asking questions like, "What was it all about? What did he want?"
Doesn't it seem strange that these books got so popular? Martin Amis noticed how odd this was in the long view. Tracing the changing identity of literary heroes, he wrote, "First gods, then demi-gods, then kings, then great warriors, great lovers, then burghers and vicars and doctors and lawyers. Then social realism: you. Then irony: me."
Why not read about heroes? Of course plenty of people did; James Bond was more popular than John Updike. But John Updike won literary awards, and Ian Fleming never did. Somehow the literary culture got obsessed with the Sad White Man novel and made them out to be great works of literature with deep insights and so on. What did that say about our culture?
The point of John Self's essay is to say that this whole tradition is ending, and books like these can't get published any more. In the way of the contemporary world he makes this all about race and sex, and talks about how white male authors are having a hard time getting published. It is probably true that one reason these books are declining is that many Americans just don't want to hear right now about the struggles of the privileged. I, of course, think the White Man business is entirely the wrong framing; John Updike and Ian Fleming were both privileged white men, but their books are hardly in the same category.
I'm just wondering, now, what the praise heaped on those dismal books meant, and what it means that people no longer want to read them. I can imagine what certain kinds of people would say. E.g. the ones who would say we are now too economically insecure for such fantasies, or the ones who think the desperate struggle for justice or civilization is too all-consuming to allow time for them. But those novels were written during the Cold War, which a lot of people thought was pretty important.
Sometimes, maybe, art has a life of its own, and follows certain paths for reasons that have little to do with anything else. If so, I am glad art is moving on.