Which books do we need?

Literary now-ness, and an anachronistic, exquisitely fashioned novel

Does the world, wonders the jaded book reviewer, need another epic love story unfolding against the backdrop of the Second World War—a novel one might dismiss, in the clichés of blurb parlance, as “a portrait of a marriage” set amid “the devastation of twentieth-century Europe” in a “paean to the human spirit” (whatever a “paean” is) by a “writer at the height of her powers”?

In those terms, no: nothing new here. But which books do we need then? Lately it seems that we require fiction to proclaim its novelty and utility, to wade into the muck of whatever current dialectic, to be up-to-date and conscientiously engaged with not just the issues of our time, but their various discursive modes as well. In this formulation even the historical novel should offer some modern resonance in order to anchor it in the present moment. Our authors shouldn’t just make it new, but make it now. Except literary newness is mostly...