Alison Lurie

       Home in Ithaca, N.Y., where it is raining, just as it was in San Francisco. The local attitude toward this is mild acceptance (“We had to cancel the picnic, but it’s good for the garden”), whereas in San Francisco, the reaction was one of almost supernatural horror (“Really, it never rains in August here, something must be wrong”).
       In Ithaca, national and international issues shrink in importance: The headlines in the local paper announce that a bridge has been opened, and that a nearby town is celebrating its 200th anniversary with a parade, fireworks, and the re-enactment of a Civil War battle. It’s also restful to read the local crime reports: Highlights this week were a fight in a bar, some cases of drunken driving, the theft of an early-model Nintendo game from a yard sale, and an arrest for shoplifting “items including … school supplies, clothing, and raspberry Fig Newtons” from Kmart.
       This summer I am reading fiction for a literary prize. Since over 250 books have been submitted, and my list of 10 possible winners is due in two weeks, I can’t look at every word. Instead, I read the first five pages of every book, and if I like it, the next 20 or 30. Then I either read the whole thing or put it aside. Luckily for the contestants, there are four other judges.
       Over the years that I’ve been on various prize committees, I’ve noticed changes. There are, for instance, many fewer novels about war, and much less experimental writing. There is also a surplus of first novels (some of them first-rate) in which the main character is a child or adolescent coping with a dysfunctional family, often one in which the parents are divorced and one of them has disappeared. These stories take place in a variety of regional, economic, and ethnic settings, but again and again the themes are the same. The parents, though attractive and intermittently affectionate, are far more impulsive and irresponsible than their children. They can’t really manage their own lives very well, or stick to any job or town or partner, so the plot is one crisis after another.
       Most of these novels have the look of being at least partly autobiographical. What seems likely is that a lot of these writers, born in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, are the offspring of people who went overboard back then and never quite managed to get back onto the ship. In the course of these novels, the protagonists discover how immature (though often lovably eccentric) their parents are. Usually they then begin to take charge of their own lives, and by the end of the book are on their way to becoming responsible and competent, sometimes with the help of considerably older people who were born in the serious years of the Depression and World War II.