I try not to give too much thought to the Great American Writer/Novel discussion, opting instead to ignore the fact that we place unproductive emphasis on an arbitrary title that will never have an objective meaning. The British don’t have a Great British Writer. I don’t think the French sit around debating whether Balzac or Flaubert or Proust is #1. This obsession with which novelist is the best is a very American thing. We long for an absolute answer that we will never get.
Yet I will admit that when an author is a truly great American author, in the sense that they see past the gloss and create greatness out of this strange place we call home, I wonder whether the debate might have some use. And if I absolutely had to pick one living writer who — to me — really earns that title, I’d say Denis Johnson, without a second of hesitation, because Johnson is the writer who best captures contemporary American flaws in all their glory. For proof, I’d point the inexperienced in the direction of his three masterpieces: 1992’s story collection Jesus’ Son; 2007’s National Book Award-winning novel, Tree of Smoke; and Johnson’s powerful turn of the century novella, Train Dreams, published in 2011. After that, I’d recommend any of his other novels, urging new fans not to forget his underrated, burnt-out and messed up 1997 novel, Already Dead, then his poetry, his plays, and his overlooked collection of essays, Seek: Reports from the Edges of America & Beyond; all of these books add up to one of the most impressive bodies of work of any current writer living anywhere, not just America.
I agree with Natasha Vargas-Cooper, who wondered why a writer with such an impressive resume lacks “the same vocal hordes of devotees as Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace does,” at Bookforum last week. Johnson has reached a point in his career where he is still at the top of his game (see his recent New Yorker story,“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” which Johnson said he worked on for seven or eight years), but is also established enough to see his writing influence a whole new generation. I would go as far as to say that while he doesn’t have the book-sales or fan numbers of Franzen or Wallace, Johnson is the most influential living fiction writer in America today. His themes, his style, and his tone are increasingly recognizable in the work of newer authors, from the short stories of Laura van den Berg to Justin Taylor’s fiction, Susan Steinberg’s Spectacle, and most notably, Claire Vaye Watkins’ dig into the dark side of the American west, Battleborn.
Johnson is the type of writer other writers look up to because he doesn’t hold anything back. The surface of his writing isn’t shiny, but that hasn’t stopped him from giving us some of the most perfect lines that American literature has produced in the last three decades. He is the best chronicler of Americans fucking up in a fucked-up America, and he writes his characters with a depth of insight that few authors can muster.
Johnson’s influence on contemporary fiction is even, apparently, being taken as a given — and a selling point — within the publishing industry. I noted his name mentioned in the descriptions of three new books: Brandon Hobson’s Deep Ellum, D. Foy’s Made to Break, and Murray Farish’s Inappropriate Behavior. The other author names used to sell those books are pretty huge — Hobson’s book is compared to Dickens, Foy’s to Roberto Bolaño, and Farish’s to Barry Hannah. If you look closely, you notice the pattern is that Johnson is the only living writer mentioned. Artists sometimes retreat from comparisons to other living practitioners of their craft for fear of being called an imitator, but nobody seems to mind the Johnson comparison. If you’re going to be compared to somebody, I can’t image anyone better.