Over at Words and Peace, a short prompt about a "Dickens or a Zola for our time" from a couple weeks ago, coinciding with the first Zola novel I've read in over two years, has gotten the wheels in my head turning over that question and trying to figure out what it is about Zola (and to a certain extent, Dickens) that I cannot seem to find in modern novels. In my response to that post, I recommended a few recent novels that seemed to capture a fairly good picture of modern society. But each novel aims its gaze at an entirely different section of the US and its incredibly diverse and varied population. Furthermore, I could not immediately think of a good non-US-centric novel that does the same. I suggested (in my obscenely long comment - my sincerest apologies for that) that perhaps literature today focuses less on the larger society as a whole, but more on the individual character. "Literary" novels of our era tend to be more character-based and don't set their sites as high as portraying the current social dynamic.
While I haven't read enough Dickens to be a reliable authority, I'm currently reading my sixth Zola novel and have spent many years reading about the man and his writing. In my mind, Zola is a writer unlike any other - he is a project-writer, an idealist, a sharp-eyed observer who sometimes can't hold his tongue. When he writes about alcoholism in L'Assommoir, there's a hint of his judgmental side filtering through. When he writes about strikes and poor worker conditions in Germinal, there is a persistent sense of humanity and truth emanating from the pages. His writing feels as relevant today as it must have in the 19th century, quick little dashes of truth that resonate to this very day.
In the Rougon-Macquart cycle, Zola sought to capture an entire society - a whole era - by chronicling the lives of these families. In "Les Quatre Evangiles" (his final works), Zola hoped to display French values and morals: Fruitfulness, Labor, Truth, and Justice. Zola died before he could see Truth published (and it was thus unedited upon posthumous publication) and before the completion of Justice, leaving the series incomplete. Les Quatre Evangiles echoes the Rougon-Macquart cycle in that each book is a stand-alone novel, but all center around a single family - the Froment family. Taken together, these two series (and, I presume, Zola's Les Trois Villes, which I have yet to read) paint a fascinating portrait of Zola's France. From all angles. Zola gives us wealth and poverty, struggle and ease, love and hate. I have yet to read all of Zola's novels (it's one of the only literary goals I've ever set myself), but Zola's ambition and scope are hard to refute.
So back to the original question: where are authors like this today? Where are the books that seek to tell this story in our modern age? Can one single author even attempt a project of this magnitude? I struggled to come up with even three individual examples of social critique (and one of them is "ironic"), but the fact is that if I look at the hundreds of books I've read in the past few years, very few novels would qualify, and fewer still that are good. I've read plenty of books that try to describe other, "exotic" cultures (often resulting in gross generalizations and poor writing). I've read many books that present a character in a painful and emotional state and then allow us to follow him/her. I've read fantasy and sci-fi novels that have used their alternate realities to deeply explore their mirror societies.
But no contemporary social critique like Zola. I'm starting to think it's impossible. An author would have to be devoted to writing a multitude of very different books and producing an output akin to James Patterson's. Publishers would have to be willing to support individual novels that would have varying levels of success. And the author would have to work very hard to uncover the many cores of modern society. Even in a smaller country than the U.S., this is no simple task. I'm not sure many modern writers would want to take that on. And I'm not sure many modern readers would necessarily appreciate such an important and perhaps challenging project either.
As for myself, I'll be making a point to search for a few more novels of this kind. The three that I could come up with were books that I greatly enjoyed for their social critique (American Rust, The Barbarian Nurseries, and to a lesser degree Fathermucker). With a bit more Zola in my system, I'm eager to find further titles that qualify. While perhaps no single writer can take up Zola's mantle, many individual novels (from across the globe) could ultimately serve the same purpose. I intend to find them.