You can hear the creak of the hobbyhorse and the sharpening of the axe throughout the essay, and linking literature so directly to the economic realities can easily lead to a stiff-backed form of literary marxism, one that makes its point by cherry-picking this or that award winner or bestseller and letting it stand in for the entire realm of contemporary literature.
In 1987, the year Beloved appeared, the top tenth of the American population made about 38 percent of the nation’s income. (The bottom fifth made about 3.8 percent.) That top figure was substantially up from the relatively egalitarian numbers that prevailed from the end of World War II until the late 1970s, but that rise was nothing compared with the jump that has taken place since: In 2006, according to the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, the top tenth earned about half of all the money made in America, more even than in 1928, till then the highest figure of the century. The bottom quintile got 3.4 percent.For a great many Americans, in other words, the boom has been the problem, not the crash. But the more unjust and unequal American society has become, the more we have heard about how bad, say, the Holocaust was. And in the past few years, as the actual Holocaust has begun to show the first signs of brand fatigue, enterprising writers like Roth (in The Plot Against America) and Chabon (in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union) have boldly moved beyond bad things that happened in the past to bad things that didn’t happen in the past: a Nazi takeover of the United States and the exile of a whole society of Eastern European Jews to Alaska.
But all the same, those links do exist – not that you'd know it from the way fiction gets written about in most book sections, where a breezily post-historical drawing room tone of pure aesthetic appreciation (something that has never existed) tends to reign.
Later, he dubs the memoir a "Thatcherite genre," which is a little sweeping, but hard to dispute.
Not that you can't dispute it, and that's the point. There is nothing to dispute in bland appreciation of books, because there is nothing there in the first place.
* for example, this:
You get a better sense of the actual structure of American society from any of Ellis’s famous descriptions of what people are wearing ('a suit by Lubiam, a great-looking striped spread-collar cotton shirt from Burberry, a silk tie by Resikeio and a belt from Ralph Lauren') than you do from all the accounts of people reclaiming, refusing, or repurposing their cultural identities.No you don't, and to say you do is just lazy Russell Smithism. Brand names can reinforce a point about character or setting, but to say they alone nail down both is the equivalent of those high school English tables of symbols where the colour blue always means "God" or something. In the not-very-distant future – indeed, if not already – people will read those descriptions and wonder whether the character is supposed to be seen as haute or gauche.
UPDATE: Thought I'd pull out this earlier rant about historical fiction from way, way back in 2006, when we were younger, more alive, more open to possibilities, more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with bellies more full of piss and vinegar, etc.