I'm currently clavicle-deep in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky — full disclosure, I'm a Dostoevsky man, but I won't turn down the Big T at his best — and the sheer amount of social upheaval in the 19th century that served as the background for both authors' works makes the times we live through now seem almost piddling. Well, almost. We only know the times and the manners we have been born into.
And the times and the manners I was born into don't seem any less seismic in their own way. Right now it's a three-way split between whether we choke to death on our own waste products, bottle ourselves up in our own digital creations and never come out again, or invent hyperdrive and light out for any number of other places to mess up. If there isn't the substance of some great and towering drama in all that, I don't know where else you could find it. But so far all of the great works of the moment seem to bulk so tiny in emotional content compared to their potential spiritual predecessors.
I approach this observation with skepticism even as I make it. I'm most skeptical because I know all too well how the great works of any one given age are often only possible to know about until after the fact. Moby-Dick and Melville's work generally were only see as being allegorical masterworks after a body of study was assembled around them decades after the author's death. Philip K. Dick went from being a weirdo druggie pulpster for Ace to one of American literature's most prescient and poignant visionaries — so much so that he now has Library of America editions in his honor.
Odds are the really significant books of our moment in time are not necessarily going to be the ones we've been talking about the most. Some of this is, again, my own prejudice of taste: I don't think the vast majority of stuff published with literary circle awards on the front cover and author cross-blurbing on the inside flap is what it's all cracked up to be, in big part because we don't yet have the luxury of time to help us discern true illumination from pretentious flattery. (God help us if we're still reading risible stuff like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in fifty years, though.)
The issues of the age are all around us: the rise of the likes of Facebook and Google to undeserved godhood, the permanent and irreversible despoliation of our planet (and us along with it, most likely), the decline of humane governance and the rise of plutocratic indifference. If the age passes without a single great work being produced about any or all of these themes, then I'd say we just aren't trying very hard.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind