There's an argument to be made that the finest 21st-century American storytellers are working in television.
Make no mistake, most TV, American or otherwise, is ghastly stuff. But most of today's novels aren't so special either. This probably explains why a growing number of American television programmes have conquered and colonised the territory that was once the true stomping ground of the novel: the large-canvassed social, political and deeply personal narrative. Call it the luxurious pull of a long tale well told, and think of series like The Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, Six Feet Under or put it this way: how on earth could a US crime writer compete with The Wire, a programme that is positively Victorian in its form of serialised storytelling.
Now the novelists are going into television. Can you blame them? Jonathan Franzen tried and (and failed) to ambitiously adapt The Corrections for HBO on the heels of Game of Thrones, their brilliant adaptation of George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series, and the charming Bored to Death, which was created and written by the novelist Jonathan Ames.
Not to be outdone, Jonathan Safran Foer is currently writing a series that will feature Ben Stiller on both sides of the camera.
But what of going the other way, from writing television to writing novels? From sitcoms, say, to a comic novel?
Maria Semple is a novelist who was once an acclaimed screenwriter on shows like Ellen, Saturday Night Live and, importantly, Arrested Development, which arguably ranks among the finest TV comedies of the century.
Maybe a reason for her switch can be found in the pages of Semple's compulsive second novel, Where'd You Go, Bernadette. Whereas writing for TV involves a fairly large amount of compromises, writing a novel is more dangerous: you pretty much live and die by your own words. It's all you. That can be a blessing as far as creative control, but also a curse because, hey, what if all you isn't actually all that good to begin with? Who is going to tell you?
The titular character of Semple's book, the acid-tongued, mildly agoraphobic, massively antisocial and apparently totally brilliant Bernadette Fox, is someone that needs this kind of complete creative control.
For Bernadette, it's that or nothing. So in the middle of nothing - or nowhere - or, technically, Seattle, a city she hilariously despises - is where we find Bernadette Fox at the start of the novel. As one of her old friends puts it: "People like you must create. If you don't create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society."
Where'd You Go, Bernadette is about all the ways in which Bernadette, a former architectural wunderkind and recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (or Genius Grant), becomes a menace to herself, her family and those around her. The novel is an intricately constructed mystery of a woman's breakdown and eventual disappearance. It's also very funny.
It begins with a note from Bee Branch, Bernadette's daughter: "The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says, 'What's most important is for you to understand it's not your fault.' You'll notice that wasn't even the question. When I press him, he says the second annoying thing, 'The truth is complicated. There's no way one person can ever know everything about another person'."
For much of the rest of the book we're taken back over the last few months before Bernadette's disappearance. Bee Branch makes for an enjoyable occasional narrator. She's in eighth grade at Galer Street School, where she does the sort of annoying, precocious things befitting a character whose given name is actually Balakrishna.