Jhumpa Lahiri Isn’t Doing Anything Novel

Jhumpa Lahiri‘s Unaccustomed Earth—still in the top ten of the New York Times bestseller list—isn’t out in the U.K. yet. The Guardian assembles a primer on Lahiri’s success, though I want to say that Edward Helmore is overreaching with his argument that her work signals a seachange in American fiction:

But can Lahiri’s stories—along with those of immigrant authors such as Edwidge Danticat (born in Haiti), Gary Shteyngart (from Russia) and Junot Díaz (the Dominican Republic)—supplant the white male authors who informed US culture throughout the 20th century? In the era of globalisation, are immigrant stories the more compelling, relevant and energetic? Part of the answer lies with the US education system, which is making renewed efforts to make room for authors like Lahiri, Chang-rae Lee and Khaled Hosseini.

I get the argument: There’s only so many times you can hear Updike/Roth/Chabon/McCarthy bolted to lists of great American authors before you start thinking that you’re in a world exclusive to white men. But like the “Bob Dylan Is Back!” story that gets written every time he puts out a new album, “Our Newly Diverse American Fiction!” is a story that’s been told repeatedly for decades now. You heard it with Sandra Cisneros, Maxine Hong Kingston, Oscar Hijuelos, Amy Tan, and more; the shelves of my home growing up were filled with Harry Mark Petrakis books (no Wikipedia page for him!), and he began writing in the ’50s. Were journalists writing trend pieces in 1918? If so, you might’ve heard something about My Antonia wresting American literature from the urbane fists of Henry James.

None of the authors I’ve just listed claim the place that Roth alone does, and it’s fair to speculate about why that is. But the real story isn’t about the immigrant narrative being something new, but why it’s often played a B-team role. After all, even Updike recognizes the value of the assimilation narrative, even if he wasn’t enthusiastic about my favorite novel of last year, Ha Jin‘s A Free Life. As long as those stories stay in the shadows, the ones that grab some sales heat will be extolled, wrongly, as something shockingly new.

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