11/12/2012 06:38 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

Are Writers Finishing Great Novels, Or Are Great Novels Finished?

Two of America's greatest living novelists, Tom Wolfe and John Grisham, have each come out with novels just in time for the holiday season. Both novels are second-rate. The reasons why reveal much about society and the future of fiction writing.

Wolfe has written Back to Blood, a typically massive Wolfe-ian novel set in Miami, depicting the tensions among the Cubans and others who call South Florida home. Its main character is a 25-year-old Cuban police trainee, Nestor Camacho, who is wrongly vilified by his community and even his family when he famously arrests an escapee from Castro's Cuba.

Grisham has written The Racketeer, a typically longish legal thriller set in Virginia and points south, depicting the tensions among the FBI, the courts, and drug dealers. Its main character is a 44-year-old black attorney, Malcolm Bannister, who has been wrongly vilified by the justice system.

Success can freeze writers into writing the same book over and over, out of laziness or fear, conscious or otherwise, of alienating their audiences. To their credit, both men have avoided that trap throughout their careers. Wolfe's The Right Stuff, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, and The Bonfire of the Vanities are all radically different books. Grisham keeps plowing the same legal territory and yet reminding us in new and compelling ways that the so-called good and the great, whether they are attorneys, senators, or judges, are actually quite immoral, especially compared with the naïve yet honorable main characters who so often resemble Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts.

So what went wrong this time around?

In Wolfe's case, it's not new news that South Florida is primarily Spanish-speaking, but that seems to be the discovery that sparks this novel. He appears shocked that the Cuban community is anti-Castro, that WASPs are social climbers; and that iPhones are remarkable communication devices.

Grisham's outrage, usually sparked by massive injustice like the death penalty, here spotlights methamphetamine dealers, teaching us that they are bad but sometimes cops are worse.

We knew that.

Interestingly, both novels feature main characters whose skin color differs from the authors'. You've got to admire the noble multicultural spirit that animates both books, but the portrayals of both Camacho and Bannister are, well, off. Neither character is drawn with enough empathy to create a deep bond with readers. Maybe the authors don't know enough Latinos or blacks to write convincingly enough about them. The writings of both men are peopled with blacks and a few Spanish-speakers, but they're usually minor characters: suspects, cops, or dope dealers, not protagonists.

Grisham's novel is a departure from his usual structure of a decent man uncovering indecent acts, at the risk of his own life and career. It's a caper novel that the author, with surprising candor, deems "implausible" a few pages from the end. Even Grisham, it appears, doesn't buy his own story. Back to Blood, by contrast, is Bonfire of the Vanities with a rich, Star Island tan. Wealthy people, bad; poor people, virtuous; young Cuban women, gorgeous, insecure, thick haired, and lubricious (Wolfe-speak for "sexually available if the price is right").

You need 699 pages for that?

So what gives here?

If these guys can't get novels right, who can?

These misfires raise the larger question of whether the novel itself is a dying form. It's not scientific to globalize from two examples, but the larger question is this: 50 years from now, if people are still reading long-form fiction (say, anything longer than a Twitter feed), what contemporary authors' works will survive?

I'll wait.

You've got some terrific genre writers today -- Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Stephen King, James Patterson, and Grisham himself come to mind. But is there a single author, Grisham and King notwithstanding, whose works attract the deserved attention of a mass readership?

Dan Brown? A one-time phenomenon, whose moderately well-written thriller, The Da Vinci Code, succeeded because it gave legitimacy to the anti-religious feelings of a broad audience and raised the sales of his past and future works.

J.K. Rowling? The world's most famous children's author, whose first foray into adult fiction hasn't set the world on fire.

E.L. James? How do you follow Fifty Shades? With 128 Colors?

Tellingly, the Modern Library's list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century, includes only two books published after 1980. Salman Rushdie's 1981 novel Midnight's Children ranked a lowly 90th, and William Kennedy's Ironweed, published in 1983, merited a dismal 92nd place. After them, crickets.

Maybe Solomon was right: There's nothing new under the sun. Or at least there's nothing new for novelists to notice and describe. Novel means new, and we're seeing next to nothing that's new in novels.

Anybody know a good Twitter feed I can follow?