Recently A. O. Scott wrote a great piece on contemporary American fiction for the New York Times. It was prompted by the Book Review polling various literary figures asking them to determine the great American novel of the last 25 years.
As was guaranteed, the request brought lots of agonizing responses and analysis of the meanings of the terms in the question. And it brought agonizing comparisons with similar periods in American lit past.
The five winning books were:
5) American Pastoral by Philip Roth
4) Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
3) "Rabbit Angstrom" the one volume compilation of the four Rabbit novels by John Updike, though only two were actually published within this 25 year period
2) Underworld by Don DeLillo
1) Beloved by Toni Morrison
Scott then goes into a really nicely done analysis of these books and what they might have in common that compels us to rank them high. He is not surprised by Beloved and says that no one should be, since it is the one novel from this period that has so quickly and clearly become canonical. Almost all of these books are reflections upon our past, which is quite interesting.
Also of note is how diverse the voting was. It only took 15 votes to win. There is great diversity of opinion currently in American letters as to what is the best. Philip Roth was clearly considered the greatest writer, with more of his novels receiving votes than any other author, which also meant that votes for Roth were spread out.
One interesting point is this:
So the top five American novels are concerned with history, with origins, to some extent with nostalgia. They are also the work of a single generation. DeLillo, born in 1936, is the youngest of the five leading authors. The others were born within two years of one another: Morrison in 1931, Updike in 1932, Roth and McCarthy in 1933.
Scott notes that the Baby Boomers haven't produced great writers. Almost all the great writers currently living were born in the Roosevelt era or before. Only Marilynne Robinson and Tim O'Brien (Baby Boomers) received votes. This is unlike previous periods in American lit. The last time a vote like this was taken, in 1965, almost all the authors on the list were under fifty.
Also surprising is that none of the vibrant work of the younger generations made the list -- Franzen, Wallace, Chabon, etc.
Read this essay, it is quite good. And I've love to sit and drink wine and discuss its conclusions, if anyone is interested.