It is a strange thought to imagine that in 75 years or so, there will be a collection of books, sorted out from the thousands published in the last decade or two, that will be considered the "canon" of my era. My grandchildren and great-grandchildren will read them in high school and college, and argue about what they meant and what was intended. I haven't, however, the faintest idea which books they will be - whether McEwan or Roth, Delillo or Rowling.
My best guess is that most of them won't be high culture books, post modern, or winners of the Nobel prize for literature. If you look back at the history of fiction, comparatively little of it was written as "art" or as "high culture" (poetry being to some degree an exception, but not quite as much as one might think). The books that we read over and over again tend to be their day's low culture, books read by most of the literate populace, for their own pleasure. While it may be hard for modern tv addicts to imagine reading George Eliot or going to see "Tamburlaine" for pleasure, it is a simple fact.
They also probably won't arise from the lowest of low cultures, either. While some bad books have made it into the canon, and some bad books have been reclaimed in the name of the gender or history of their authors, mostly people don't like to read bad ooks. And who can blame them. The occasional over-the-top potboiler, that is fun to read but with virtually no meaningful content (given where I live, I probably shouldn't say this, but Cooper leaps to mind), and the occasional bad bit of high culture, that no one really likes to read but everyone says is interesting ("Finnegan's Wake" will do as an obvious example, but there are plenty of others.), but mostly, the books in the canon are well beloved by most readers, precisely because they are fun and readable.
So I'd be inclined to toss out things like Delillo, who is a very entertaining novelist, but an awful lot of work to read for very little return. I don't claim to know whether it is identification or vicarious enjoyment that allows one to fall thoroughly into a book's world and have trouble escaping its gravity, but I'm fairly sure that's never happened in a Delillo novel. My experience of most self-consciously post-modern authors is that I admire the way they right, the fun they are having, the ideas they are playing with, but don't much care what happens.
Wanting to care what happens next is a very old fashioned, dull way to think about what makes a good book, but I'm not sure it has been exceeded. Certainly, I don't think it has been exceeded by the contemporary psychological novel, an example of which would be the novels of Toni Morrison, or Dorothy Allison, which goes on and on explaining how someone came to be the way they are. The characters become who they are through the survival of an unending history of suffering, which logically concludes in the result at hand. Enduring that much suffering with a character is possible, if you very much like the character. But characters who are always and only formed by their experience of pain and suffering are usually hard to like, and after reading a few such novels, the process of being wrenched, over and over again, gets extremely tedious. I suspect some will survive, as exemplars in literary classes, of a recreation of the sentimental novel (the 18th century genre we seemed compelled to relive). But by and large, I don't forsee them making it either.
I suspect a few big, important novels, that lay open the politics and history of the times will also survive, but again, mostly to be read by scholars, not book lovers. There's something fundamentally archaic, and often dull, about reading a radical tract from the past. Try it sometime - pick one that has held up fairly, perhaps "The Jungle" and try to care about its political agenda. It works fine in the abstract, but I'd be shocked to learn there is someone out there who re-reads "The Jungle" the way people re-read Jane Austen. I fear McEwan, who I rather like, will be toast. I kind of hope that Roth and his indescribably dull _Plot Against America_ will be.
If I were placing bets (which I am, in fact), I'd lay odds that many of the books best remembered from my time will be children's literature, which has bloomed in the last decade in ways that are both exciting and novel. Freed by the constraints of being timely and meaningful, people have gone about writing really good, deeply enjoyable books, many of them quite literary.
Rowling and Pullman, so often discussed in the same sentence, seem to me like logical survivors both. Pullman is more "literary" but he is also less fun - his style is heavy handed and tedious at times, and his characters aren't very interesting. On the other hand, the story is compelling - despite the flaws in his telling, despite the fact that it is never made clear why the characters, who supposedly love so deeply, can even stand to be together, there is something both original and engaging about him. One can imagine this book as a high culture novel, rather than a children's novel, and recognize that the adult version would be nigh on unreadable, but in writing for a younger audience, Pullman is freed of his worst writing, and pulled towards something greater in scope than most adult novels would dare imagine. Pullman is a Romantic, in the old sense, and I rather think that a little romanticism might do us good.
Rowling's style is less self-consciously artistic, but more readable, and her characters better drawn and more complex. She's very uneven - the second book in the series is quite awful; and at times terribly predictable - in her fifth book, for example, the death of Dumbledore is both inevitable and endlessly foreshadowed. Having grown too big for an editor, with a desperate readership that demands length above all, the faults in her writing have been somewhat magnified.
But Rawling's books are smart, and funny (sadly, Pullman's aren't), and many of her characters are astonishingly complex. And she and Pullman make excellent companions, because if there is one thing that Rawling is not, despite her reliance on magic, it is romantic. Her novels are, oddly, novels about being grown-up (despite the fact that her main characters are children), and they are about recognizing that the flawed and fallen adult world is a place of magic and power. In a world where real adulthood is increasingly rare, and where fantasies of youth are everywhere, there is something astonishing about Rawlings, flaws and all.
If I had to place a bet on the books that will survive, I would look to children's literature - not exclusively, but to a large degree. Because those are the books that people of all ages and genders in my culture turn to, for the sheer pleasure of reading. I hope one of these days I can say that about the majority of adult fiction I read.
Sharon in upstate NY