The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors

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Since it began in 1995, Salon.com has been showered with awards and praise. Now, its 150,000 devoted readers can devour The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors--an all-original, A-to-Z guide to 225 of the most fascinating writers of our time, penned by an international cast of talented young critics and reviewers. Here are profiles, reviews, and bibliographies of the authors that matter most now--from Margaret Atwood to Tobias Wolff, Paul Auster to Alice Walker. Also included are essays and ...
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Overview

Since it began in 1995, Salon.com has been showered with awards and praise. Now, its 150,000 devoted readers can devour The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors--an all-original, A-to-Z guide to 225 of the most fascinating writers of our time, penned by an international cast of talented young critics and reviewers. Here are profiles, reviews, and bibliographies of the authors that matter most now--from Margaret Atwood to Tobias Wolff, Paul Auster to Alice Walker. Also included are essays and recommended reading lists by some of the authors themselves, such as Dorothy Allison on the books that shaped her, A. S. Byatt on her five favorite historical novels, Rick Moody on postmodern fiction, Robert Stone on the greatest war novels, and Ian McEwan on the best fiction about work.

Peppered throughout with marvelously witty illustrations, The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors will be a must-have for anyone who is looking for cocktail party conversation starters, a good read, or advice on what to read next.

Salon.com has won most major Web awards, including:

  • Webby Award for "Best Online Magazine" (1997, 1998, 1999)
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Laura Miller is Salon.com's New York Editorial Director.

Adam Begley is book editor for the New York Observer.

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There are many guides to literature. What sets the Salon.com apart is its tone. While some of the entries are adoring, others are blistering.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140280883
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 8/1/2000
  • Pages: 512
  • Product dimensions: 7.40 (w) x 9.12 (h) x 1.25 (d)

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Abbey, Edward 1927-1989 b. Home, Pennsylvania


       FICTION: Jonathan Troy (1956), The Brave Cowboy (1956), Fire on the Mountain (1962), Black Sun (1971), The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), Good News (1980), The Fool's Progress (1988), Hayduke Lives! (1990)


       NONFICTION: Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness (1968), Appalachian Wilderness: The Great Smoky Mountains (1970), Slickrock: The Canyon Country of Southeast Utah (with Philip Hyde, 1971), Cactus Country (1973), The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West (1977), Back Roads of Arizona (1978), The Hidden Canyon: A River Journey (1977), Desert Images: An American Landscape (1979), Abbey's Road: Take the Other (1979), Down the River (1982), In Praise of Mountain Lions (with John Nichols, 1984), Beyond the Wall: Essays from the Outside (1984), The Best of Edward Abbey (1988), One Life at a Time, Please (1988), A Voice Crying in the Wilderness: Essays from a Secret Journal (1990), Confessions of a Barbarian: Selections from the Journals of Edward Abbey, 1951-1989 (1994), The Serpents of Paradise: A Reader (1995)


Celebrated as a brilliant, sardonic environmental polemicist and chronicler of the Southwestern landscape, Abbey thought of himself primarily as a novelist, and during the final decades of his life he nursed grievances against both critics and admirers who had slighted his achievements as a fiction writer. He spent much of the 1950s studying philosophy at theUniversity of New Mexico, where he wrote a master's thesis on anarchy and violence. Abbey's literary career began with the execrable bildungsroman Jonathan Troy, followed by two intermittently successful modern westerns with an existential bent: The Brave Cowboy (later made into a Kirk Douglas movie titled Lonely Are the Brave), and Fire on the Mountain.

    In 1968, after supporting himself for several years by working as a seasonal park ranger in Utah, Abbey published the first of his eleven nonfiction books, the angry, elegiac essay Desert Solitaire; it remains his most popular title and is justly considered a classic of American writing on the meaning and value of wilderness. His fourth novel, Black Sun, tells the story of a man whose lover disappears after they spend an ecstatic period together at a fire-lookout tower in Grand Canyon country; the book includes some of Abbey's finest evocations of the alien beauty of the desert and some of his most bathetic musings on love and solitude. Abbey's best novel by far is The Monkey Wrench Gang, a hugely entertaining comic fantasy about a quartet of eco-saboteurs who roam the Southwest destroying roads, billboards, bridges, and bulldozers, and who dream of demolishing the West's greatest symbol of technocratic hubris, Glen Canyon Dam.

    So compelling is Abbey's anarchistic vision that it was instrumental in inspiring the formation of Earth First!—an organization whose more zealous and naive members sometimes attempted to emulate the demolition tactics of the novel's protaganists. The Monkey Wrench Gang draws its satirical force from both a gleeful countercultural violation of middle-class norms (its Vietnam vet George Washington Hayduke, "a saboteur of much wrath but little brain," could have come straight from the pages of the underground comix) and a Twainian, mock-heroic exuberance. Good News, Abbey's next novel, is a scabrous but ultimately slight exposition of a post-apocalyptic Arizona in which Abbey's worst ecological nightmares have come to pass. The author's most ambitious and explicitly autobiographical novel is The Fool's Progress; despite some fine passages of reminiscence about Appalachian boyhood on a Depression-era farm, the book is a showcase of many of Abbey's least attractive qualities (among them his willful cantankerousness, xenophobia, and self-pitying machismo). A posthumous sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang, Hayduke Lives!, was published in 1990.


See Also: Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy, which includes All the Pretty Horses, portrays a Southwest very different from Edward Abbey's, but it is similarly transcendent and haunted by the loss of its pristine perfection. The novels of Carl Hiassen transplant the theme of violent, comic revenge against rapacious development to the wilds of South Florida. Barbara Kingsolver offers a feminized version of Abbey country in her novel Animal Dreams.

—Hal Espen


Achebe, Chinua 1930- b. Albert Chinualumogu Achebe in 0gidi, Nigeria


       FICTION: Things Fall Apart (1958), No Longer At Ease (1960), The Sacrificial Egg (stories, 1962), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966), Girls At War (stories, 1972), Anthills of the Savannah (1987)


       NONFICTION: Morning Yet on Creation Day (essays, 1975), The Trouble With Nigeria (essays, 1983), Hopes and Impediments (essays, 1988), Another Africa (essay and poems with photographs by Robert Lyons, 1998)


POETRY: Beware, Soul Brother (1971), Christmas in Biafra (1973)


Achebe's first novel, Things Fall Apart, was a landmark of African fiction and has justly remained a classic for more than forty years. Set in the eastern Nigerian village of Umuofia in the late 1880s, it looks back at the fierce collision of Nigeria's Ibo culture—into which Achebe was born—with encroaching European power. Its tragic hero Okonkwo mounts a doomed resistance to the white man that leaves him exiled and destroyed.

    Achebe describes with marvelous clarity—in the essays of Morning Yet on Creation Day and Hopes and Impediments—how he began to write partly in response to distorted Western views of Africa. Contesting Europe's invention of the "dark continent," Achebe retold the story of colonization from a Nigerian viewpoint, portraying a lost society warmly without overidealizing it. He aimed to restore the humanity of Africans—both in their own eyes and those of Western readers. While early critics overemphasized the novel's anthropological aspects, with Things Fall Apart Achebe also pioneered the fusion of Ibo folklore and idioms with the Western novel, arriving at an African aesthetic in which the art of storytelling is central to the tale. As he wrote: "Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten."

    Though Things Fall Apart has never been bettered by its author, it was the first of a tetralogy spanning Nigerian history from 1880 to 1966. In Arrow of God, set during British rule in the 1920s, the priest Ezeulu tests the power of his gods against those of his rivals and the white government, while No Longer at Ease and A Man of the People target corruption among the Nigerian inheritors of power in the 1960s with scourging and satirical wit.

    Achebe stopped writing novels during the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960s as he became involved with the defeated secessionist Ibos. (In 1990, a car accident near Lagos left him paralyzed from the waist down and the lack of adequate healthcare in his homeland has made a return risky.) In this period the poetry of Beware, Soul Brother and Christmas in Biafra, and the short stories of Girls at War, voiced his disillusionment with bloodshed and nationalism. (More recent poems can be found alongside Robert Lyons's photographs in Another Africa.) Anthills of the Savannah, his first novel in more than twenty years, excitingly pursues ideas he set out in his heartfelt polemic The Trouble With Nigeria. Under a military regime in the fictional west African state of Kangan, three boyhood friends—a journalist Ikem, a minister Chris, and the Sandhurst-trained military dictator Sam—clash as Sam maneuvers to become president for life. Highlighting corruption, Africa's leadership crises, and popular resistance to tyranny, the novel brings women characters to the fore—partly in response to criticism of their backseat role in earlier works. With several narrators and whole sections in pidgin, it is flawed and sometimes cumbersome, but never dull—testament to Achebe's keen, mischievous independence in probing the changing concerns of his society, and with an undeniable moral punch.


See Also: Other African writers whose fiction touches on colonization and emerging nationhood include the Nigerians Wole Soyinka and Ben Okri (whose short stories also reflect the Nigerian civil war), the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong'o, the Ghanaian Ayi Kwei Armah and the Somali Nuruddin Farah. For novels that illuminate the position of African women, see Changes by the Ghanaian Ama Ata Aidoo, So Long a Letter by the Senegalese Mariama Bâ, and Farah's political allegory about a circumcised Somali woman, From a Crooked Rib.

—Maya Jaggi


Acker, Kathy 1947-1998 b. New York, New York


       FICTION: Politics (1972), The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula (1973), I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac: Imagining (1974), Florida (1978,), Kathy Goes to Haiti (1978), The Adult Life of Toulouse Lautrec by Henri Toulouse Lautrec (1978), New York City in 1979 (1981), Great Expectations (1982), Blood and Guts in High School (1984), Algeria: A Series of Invocations Because Nothing Else Works (1985), Don Quixote (1986), Empire of the Senseless (1988), Literal Madness: Three Novels (Florida, Kathy Goes to Haiti, My Death My Life by Pier Pasolini, 1988), In Memoriam to Identity (1990), Hannibal Lecter, My Father (1991), My Mother: Demonology (1993), Pussy, King of the Pirates (1996)


NONFICTION: Bodies of Work (essays, 1997)


Rebellious, willful, innovative, in search of her own destiny, Kathy Acker made her struggle to find and exert her own voice the secret center of her writing. Her roots were in the punk movement of the 1970s, and after several experiments, all of her preoccupations came together in Blood and Guts in High School, the story of a woman living and breathing for sex. Acker's goal was to smash through the rules of language and gender in order to reclaim herself, foiling time and place in order to propose new rules of her own.

    Acker was also the gangsta face of postmodern experimentalism. In Empire of the Senseless, the hero's motto is "get rid of meaning" as he joins the female half-robot Abhor in Paris on a quest for freedom, love, and their creator—somebody named Kathy. She appropriated classic works like Great Expectations and Don Quixote, exploding them into violent, pornographic pastiches. Her last novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates, celebrates her career-long history of ransacking and plundering.

    Acker died from complications from breast cancer in 1998, an ironic end for an artist known for her tattoos, piercings, weight lifting, and other body manipulations and one who spent so much time finding new ways to take possession of her own body.


See Also: Acker admired Alain Robbe-Grillet and Jean Genet and consorted with new narrative writers like Dennis Cooper and Dodie Bellamy, but her work is part of the long-standing literary tradition of savaging the reader—first conceived by the surrealists and including writers like Isaac Babel, William S. Burroughs, and Hubert Selby, Jr.

—Brian Bouldrey


Alexie, Sherman 1966- b. Spokane, Washington


       FICTION: The Lone Ranger & Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (stories, 1993), Reservation Blues (1995), Indian Killer (1996), Toughest Indian in the World (2000)


       SELECTED POETRY: The Business of Fancydancing (1992), First Indian on the Moon (1993), The Summer of Black Widows (1996), The Man Who Loves Salmon (1998)


Sherman Alexie began the 1990s as a poor unknown poet and ended them as a one-man cultural industry. A Spokane-Couer d'Alene Indian raised on a reservation in Washington State, he first attracted attention with The Business of Fancydancing, a collection of poems and stories about life on the rez. Alexie's Indians weren't noble red men or New Age visionquesters; they played in all-Indian basketball tournaments, got drunk on Annie Green Springs wine, lived in cheap HUD houses, and sold fireworks to whites driving in from Spokane. Above all they were, like Alexie himself, sharply ironic and damned funny. Still, the book would probably have quietly faded away were it not for the prime-time charisma of its author. At readings Alexie honed a stage persona that combined fiery liberal outrage with a Will Rogers-like wit. By the late 1990s, having written the script for the movie Smoke Signals, Alexie was preparing to direct a film adaptation of his bestselling novel Indian Killer and doing stand-up comedy.

    How's the fiction? Pretty good. In his first three books, Alexie's Indian characters carried the uneasy burden of racism with a resigned form of black humor. By the time he wrote Indian Killer, though, the black humor had given way to pure rage. Indian Killer is a terribly dark, unrelenting novel about a Native American serial killer and the near-race war he triggers. The characters are thinly drawn and uncharacteristically uncomplicated—everyone seems to be either an angry, revenge-hungry Indian or a naive, ignorant white guy. "A lot of people dismiss the book as angry or didactic," Alexie once replied to his critics. "Well of course! People have this view that literature is somehow supposed to be objective. The book is called Indian Killer, not White People Are Really Cool to Indians."


See Also: Leslie Marmon Silko also writes about Native Americans, as does Gerald Vizenor, who shares Alexie's tough-eye-edged-with-humor attitude and who writes both fiction and nonfiction about the American Indian experience. Simon Ortiz is another American Indian short story-writer whose work inspired Alexie.

—Bruce Barcott


Allison, Dorothy 1949- b. Greenville, South Carolina


       FICTION: Trash (stories, 1988), Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), Cavedweller (1998)


       NONFICTION: Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature (essays, 1993), Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (1996)


       POETRY: The Women Who Hate Me (1983)


Dorothy Allison writes about the kinds of experiences—poverty, child abuse, lesbianism—that usually come swaddled in one set of "correct" conventions or another, but she obeys no laws or manners, and that is precisely why her books reach beyond the boundaries of any specific community. Born illegitimate to a proud, violent, and despised rural clan, she survived beatings and rape at the hands of her stepfather, struggled her way to college, and eventually found an uneasy place for herself among the mostly middle-class lesbian feminist activists of the 1970s and 1980s. The tough, passionate women and dangerous men of her childhood remain her preferred characters, but stories in Trash and essays in Skin testify to her refusal to renounce her renegade sexuality for the sake of genteel sisterhood—often at a high price. Few American writers have had to fight as hard for themselves and their voices, and few are as free of self-pity or as confident in their warmth.

    Her first novel, the autobiographical Bastard Out of Carolina, was widely praised and became a bestseller. But Trash, a collection of short stories published four years earlier, offers the purest distillation of her sinewy lyricism. Allison's storytelling skills tend to be anecdotal, and Bastard has the occasional slack moment as she gathers steam for the next episode. Finally, though, Allison's first novel is knitted firmly together by fierce loyalty and the rage of betrayed love. Bone Boatwright, the eponymous bastard and a "stubborn-faced" little girl, grows up in a notorious family of flinty women and drunken, thieving men. Her adored mother, who marries a man who abuses Bone, never musters the strength to defend her child, and Bone faces choices no child should have to make.

    Allison, though, shouldn't be mistaken for an "issue" novelist like the throngs of writers who seized upon incest as a primary topic in the late '80s and early '90s. She aims to be something like the bard of the women of her class, and in her 1998 novel Cavedweller, the story of a failed rock singer returning to her Georgia hometown to raise the daughters she abandoned, Allison gave her convenience-store managers and beauty-salon proprietors heroic stature. The book is baggier and less focused than Bastard but also less claustrophobic.

    Allison belongs to that Bible-tinged, Southern-myth-spinning tradition of which Faulkner is the most prominent bloom; she's probably its earthiest. She no doubt acquired these skills, as Bone did, at her grandmother's knee, listening to the old woman "start reeling out story and memory, making no distinction between what she knew was true and what she had only heard told. The tales she told me in her rough, drawling whisper were lilting songs, ballads of family, love, and disappointment. Everything seemed to come back to grief and blood, and everyone seemed legendary."


See Also: Carolyn Chute strives, like Allison, to capture the lives of working- and underclass families in Maine. Blanche McCrary Boyd is another Southern lesbian with a rich sense of humor and a wild streak.

—Laura Miller


Every Novel Is a Lesbian Novel

By Dorothy Allison


When I think of the books that shaped my lesbian imagination, it is frankly embarrassing. The truth is that my ideas of romance and erotic authority and lesbian life patterns came out of some truly awful books—when there were any books that mentioned lesbians at all. I don't mean embarassing and bad in the sense that they were badly written—though, of course, that is a factor—but embarassing because I believed, truly and completely, in the fatalistic and brutal things that were told to me about who I could be as a grown-up lesbian. I was born to a very poor, violent family where most of my focus was purely on survival, and my sense of self as a lesbian grew along with my sense of myself as a raped child, a poor white Southerner, and an embattled female. I was Violet Leduc's Le Batard much more than I was Le Amazon, that creation of upper-class Natalie Barney. People tell me that class is no longer the defining factor it was when I was a girl, but I find that impossible to fully accept. Class is always a defining factor when you are the child one step down from everyone else.

    At the age of thirteen I was always calculating how to not kill myself or how not to let myself be killed. That tends to stringently shape one's imagination. I did not plan to fill up a hope chest and marry some good old boy and make babies. I did not want to be who the world wanted to make me. I was a smart, desperate teenage girl trying to figure out how to not be dismissed out-of-hand for who I was. I wanted to go to college, not become another waitress or factory worker or laundry person or counter help woman like all the other women I knew. Everywhere I looked I saw a world that held people like me in contempt—even without the added detail of me being a lesbian.

    The only "lesbian" books I could find then were the porn under my stepfather's bed or those gaudy paperbacks from the drugstore which inevitably ended with one "dyke" going off to marry while the other threw herself under a car. This did not persuade me to be straight, but it did prove to me that fiction should be distrusted. No way I would kill myself for falling in love with my girlfriends. No, I had more deadly reasons to feel hopeless. To find a way out of the world as I saw it, I read science fiction. To sustain my rage and hope, I read poetry and mainstream novels with female heroines. And I read books by Southerners for ammunition to use against Yankees who would treat me mean. Always I read as a lesbian.

    Everyone says that their first lesbian book was Radclyffe Hall's wretched Well of Loneliness, but that didn't do it for me. I knew from a very early age that I was a femme, and while I might fall in love with Stephen, I did not want to be her. (Well, actually, I couldn't even imagine falling in love with Stephen—that brooding, bossy, ridiculous upper-class creature who would never fall in love with someone like me anyway.) If you limit the list to self-defined lesbian books, then we get down to just one: Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle. But looking for self-defined lesbian books was never how I approached the subject. I always reinterpreted books to give me what I needed. All books were lesbian books—if they were believable about women at all, and particularly if they were true to my own experience.

    I remember when I first read Barbara Smith's essay on why Toni Morrison's Sula was a lesbian novel, how this great grinding noise went through my brain. Of course, I thought, and so was Carson McCuller's Member of the Wedding and My Ántonia by Willa Cather. I always knew that. In that moment my whole imagination shifted, and I admitted what had always been so: I had spent my adolescence re-interpreting the reality of every book, movie, and television show I had ever experienced—moving everything into lesbian land. Of course, that was how I had kept myself semi-sane and developed an idea of how to love someone, how to be part of a community, and maybe even find happiness.

    I read Mary Renault as lesbian—even her novels that featured only men. There was her novel about two women on a houseboat, with the one of them writing westerns to support them both, The Friendly Young Ladies, which was definitely about lesbians, but all Renault's work seemed to me to carry forward the same themes. (I discovered that every woman I have ever dated had read not only The Persian Boy but Fire from Heaven, and recognized them as lesbian texts—as if Alexander the Great was really, truly just another wounded butch underneath it all.) I read books for the queer subtext and because they advocated a world I understood. Books about outsiders, books about inappropriate desire, books where the heroes escaped or fought social expectations, books where boys were girlish or girls were strong and mouthy—all were deeply dykey to me, sources of inspiration or social criticism or life-sustaining poetry.

    Flannery O'Connor—that astonishing, brave, visionary who told hard truths in a human voice—was an outsider holding a whole society up to a polished mirror. She was as ruthless as one of her own characters, and I loved her with my whole heart. Surely, she was a lesbian, I told myself and took comfort from her stubborn misfit's life, the fact that she lived with her mama and never married. I did not need her to sleep with a woman to prove her importance to me, though I would have been grateful to think of her with a great love comforting her as lupus robbed her of all she might have done.

    If I set aside Flannery O'Connor, I would have to say that science fiction made me who I am today. I spent my childhood buried in those books. Every science fiction novel I fell into as a child, regardless of the gender or sexual persuasion of the author, widened my imagination about what was possible for me in the world. There were those perfectly horrible/wonderful stories about barbarian swordswomen who were always falling in love with demons, and there were the Telzey stories and the Witch World books and countless brave and wonderful novels told from inside the imaginations of "special" young girls. Mindreading seemed to me to code queer. Alien suggested dyke. On another world, in a strange time and place, all categories were reshuffled and made over.

    These days with everyone so matter-of-fact about sexual identity it is hard to explain how embattled I was as a girl, how embattled the whole subject seemed to be. It was entirely different for women ten years younger than me if they grew up in an urban center, and different again a decade later for everyone regardless of where they grew up. I wonder what it must be like for those lesbians younger than me who have never had to make that translation. How do they read books, watch movies and television, and shape their own sense of being queer in the world today? Sometimes I wonder if books are as lifesaving for teenagers today as they were for me when I was a girl. But then I go to speak to some group and there are those young people clutching books to their hearts, asking me what I am reading with the same kind of desperate passion I felt whenever I went to a library or bookstore. No doubt it is different these days, but that passion still seems to be there. Books are still where some of us get our notions of how the world is, and how it might be.

    So what "lesbian" books shaped me? Sula and Member of the Wedding definitely. I reread them now, and for me they remain lesbian books. I think my lifelong struggle not to be as ridiculous, obvious, and oblivious as young Frankie saved me from being quite as blind to my own obsessions. Of course, this didn't help me to foresee all the other ways I would become as ridiculous as Frankie was. You can't get everything from books. And I know my sense of the honor between women and the importance of female friendship was buoyed up by Sula.

    I would also put in one of the Ann Bannon novels—perhaps Odd Girl Out or Beebo Brinker, though I find them difficult to reread these days. When I was young, Bannon's books let me imagine myself into her New York City neighborhoods of short-haired, dark-eyed butch women and stubborn, tight-lipped secretaries with hearts ready to be broken. Her books come close to the kind of books that had made me feel fatalistic and damned in my youth, but somehow she just managed to sustain a sense of hope. And of course, there was her romantic portrait of the kind of butch woman I idealized. I would have dated Beebo, no question, although, like a lot of my early girlfriends, she would have grown quickly bored with my political convictions and insistence on activism.

    Yes, Rubyfruit Jungle would be on my list because it made me laugh out loud and fantasize about moving to New York City and lobbing grapefruits at rich white men while dating actresses and writing my own novels. It was also written with a kind of joyful passion that countered all those deadly suicidal lesbian novels I had grown to hate.

    I would want to list Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller because it is a love story I believed and a couple I could imagine walking around in my own little Southern neighborhood. It is hard for me to honor and enjoy romantic fiction and love stories. While I sometimes felt that, by the time I first read it, I was a little too old and untrusting for Patience and Sarah, I never doubted the truth of their love. It remains, thankfully, a book I enjoy.

    There is one book I would put on any list of my most important and that is The Female Man by Joanna Russ, although I loved all her Alyx books. It is as hard and mean and fine as a Flannery O'Connor short story, if you could imagine Flannery stepping into an experimental mode more perverse than the one she managed with Wise Blood. It is also a true feminist classic, although I find that when I say that too many people smirk and look away. So, let me also say that it is almost as romantic as Patience and Sarah, with equally believable lovers and madwomen.

    I wish that everyone would read Joanna Russ's books. I remember with pleasure Picnic on Paradise, the first novel where the character Alyx appears. At the time, I was about as doctrinaire as any lesbian-feminist in history, but I remember realizing that it made no difference to me that Alyx was not the lesbian I had first thought her to be. She was screwing a teenage boy with Walkman headphones plugged into his ears every chance she got, and still seemed completely a dyke to me. Russ gave me the idea that there were lots of different ways to be queer, and that even running off to another planet might not fix my life. She made me think that I better pay a bit more attention to life on this planet, and of course she also had a sense of humor. I require a sense of humor in all things.

    Oh, what a relief it is to live in the world we have made! As cruel and prejudiced as it is, it is not the world in which I was a girl. We do not have to live hidden lives. We do not have to re-imagine ourselves into the bland over-mind. We have books, stacks and stacks of books on every imaginable subject written by lesbians, all kinds of lesbians.


Alvarez, Julia 1950- b. New York, New York


       FICTION: How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), ¡Yo! (1997)


       NONFICTION: Something to Declare (essays, 1998)


       POETRY: The Housekeeping Book (1984), Homecoming (1984), The Other Side/El Otro Lado (1995), Seven Trees (1999)


In her three novels to date, Julia Alvarez has given us an amusing (if at times irritatingly superficial) portrait of the moneyed class in the Dominican Republic of the 1950s. She's drawn to the period just prior to the fall of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, and Alvarez herself spent the first ten years of her life in the Dominican Republic (where her father was involved in the political underground), fleeing with her family to New York in 1960.

    In her first novel, the effervescent How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, a group of upper-class Dominicans—raised with servants, multiple residences, loud outfits, louder jewelry, and perfect hair and nails (fetishized with scary frequency)—adjust to the rigors and humiliations of the immigrant experience in America. Alvarez missed the opportunity to make good use of the Trujillo regime as back story; the heinous politics of the island could have lent the book some needed heft.

    Alvarez based her engaging second novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, on the true story of the four martyred Mirabel sisters, three of whom were killed in the struggle against Trujillo. The characters, storyline, and dynamic political and cultural setting are far better integrated in this book, and Alvarez—also a poet and essayist—appears to have matured remarkably as a storyteller. She returned to the characters introduced in The Garcia Girls with ¡Yo! her most enterprising and successful effort so far. While Alvarez's plots are generally entertaining, her writing tends to be conservative, cautious, and at its worst a little corny and dull. But with ¡Yo! Alvarez uses to great effect a refreshing and playful narrative device: She has everyone who has ever met the protagonist, Yo, tell anecdotes about her; everyone, it seems, has a chance to speak except Yo herself.


See Also: Junot Diaz's celebrated first book, the short-story collection, Drown, offers a grittier, more masculine depiction of Dominican-American life.

—Deborah Kirk


Amis, Martin 1949- b. Oxford, England


       FICTION: The Rachel Papers (1973), Dead Babies (1975), Success (1978), Other People: A Mystery Story (1981), Money: A Suicide Note (1984), Einstein's Monsters (stories, 1987), London Fields (1989), Time's Arrow; or, the Nature of the Offense (1991), The Information (1995), Night Train (1997), Heavy Water (stories, 1999)


       SELECTED NONFICTION: The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America (1986), Visiting Mrs. Nabokov and Other Excursions (1993)


Despite his precocious debut with 1973's The Rachel Papers, Amis has always seemed a novelist made-to-order for the 1980s: a sparkling talent yoked to an impoverished soul. His aptitude for energetically bitter social satire found plenty of grist in the era of Thatcher and Reagan, and he populated his books with ruthless elitists and charismatic frauds. His main theme—that a brutal rivalry for dominance defines all human relations—occupied him both before and after that Darwinian decade, and probably has its roots in his relationship with his father, the late, acclaimed, and equally misanthropic novelist Kingsley Amis.

    The sum of a Martin Amis novel often feels slight, which is disconcerting because the parts—his sentences, pages, and set pieces—can be so gratifying. These virtuoso performances can make you laugh out loud at his ingenuity, his eye, his extravagant yet surgical disgust. Amis's forte is the descriptive list, the litany of outrages encountered, say, on a street in London or in the course of an American book tour. He's at his best when he casts aside his pedestrian moral sensibility and goes too far, and his characters are most winning when they're least human. It's the howling debauches of the obese filmmaker John Self (Money), the troglodytic musings of the petty hoodlum Keith Talent (London Fields), the preening adolescent hypocrisies of Charles Highway (The Rachel Papers), and the near-epileptic seizures of self-loathing that plague Richard Tull (The Information) that you remember afterwards, not Amis's vague gestures in the direction of substance.

    "If the prose isn't there, then you're reduced to what are merely secondary interests, like story, plot, characterization, psychological insight and form," the author told the Paris Review, and in an Amis novel, plot and character really are "mere," but only because he's not much good at them. At times he takes up a heavy theme—most persistently, the threat of nuclear war—but this tends to feel like borrowed gravitas, a calculated attempt to look "serious." In Time's Arrow, which describes the death and life of a Nazi concentration camp doctor in reverse (the doctor grows younger, people sit down at tables to deposit food on their plates, etc.), this is particularly glaring, with the Holocaust introduced to lend import to what's essentially a stunt (and not a particularly amusing one). Even Amis's more substantial books often feel logy in the middle, as if the story were a toy engine, struggling to animate the static prose and keep everything moving along. Frequently a shadowy, manipulative, quasi-authorial character secretly controls the action for fiendish and unexplained ends—ends which one suspects include Amis's need to make sure something happens.

    Because it speaks so forthrightly of the author's greatest passion, his ambition, The Information is Amis's sharpest and most satisfying book. Like Success, it juxtaposes the fortunes of two men: Gwyn Barry, a novelist whose sentimental, politically correct claptrap has brought him fame and fortune, and his failed and poisonously envious friend, Richard Tull, who pens unpublishable experimental fiction so grueling that everyone who reads it gets a migraine. The novel that followed, Night Train, feels like a distinct departure, not just because of its middle-aged American female narrator (a cop) or its noirish trappings, but because it ventures into something very like soul-searching. Centering on the suicide of a woman who has it all (which for Amis means beauty, brains, and sex every night—there's something endearingly naive about his belief that good looks should ward off despair), it hints at a long-overdue investigation into what actually makes life worth living. It also has his least stylish prose, which suggests that his dazzle may be fatally linked to shallowness.

    Amis got stuck with the grating epithet "bad boy" in part because his work defied the genteel British fiction of the previous generation, but also on account of his reputation for racy, glamorous living, at least compared to the poky lives of most authors. He winds up in the newspapers a lot—in 1995, for example, when, in the course of divorcing his first wife, he jettisoned his longtime agent (alienating her husband, his good friend, the novelist Julian Barnes) in favor of the notorious Andrew "The Jackal" Wylie. This move sparked an angry editorial from A. S. Byatt, who accused Amis of running up the costs of the publishing industry by demanding huge advances in order to pay for his divorce and extensive dental work. (Only in England would such an accusation constitute a flung gauntlet.) For whatever mysterious reasons people become celebrities, he is one—a rare thing in literary circles—and therefore the target of much resentment.

    Amis has published two collections of journalism, but without the ferocity of his fiction they're disappointingly polite. Despite its wonderful title, his collection of pieces about America, The Moronic Inferno, can't compete for savagery with the gorgeous horrors of New York City as depicted in Money.


See Also: Will Self's fiction is often so reminiscent of Amis's that he was once thought to be a pseudonymous persona for the novelist, though Self favors more outlandish scenarios. Geoff Nicholson writes delightful, profane portraits of London life, without Amis's sour edge.

—Laura Miller


Antrim, Donald 1959- b. Sarasota, Florida


       FICTION: Elect Mr. Robinson For a Better World (1993), The Hundred Brothers (1997), The Verificationist (2000)


When critics and journalists sound off about the "next" generation of American fiction, they tend to toss out the following names—Rick Moody, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Donald Antrim. The trio attended Brown University at roughly the same time, they all studied under Angela Carter, they each now live in Brooklyn, and they're friends. Donald Antrim might be the most idiosyncratic (and wackiest) talent of the trio. His slim, fussy, perfectly calibrated novels are full of dark, Pynchonesque absurdities and more than a whiff of apocalyptic dread.

    Antrim's first novel, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, plunks you into a sleepy suburban town that's gone haywire: Neighbors fire Stinger missiles at one another when they're not embedding their lawns with massive spikes to skewer would-be intruders. (In one scene, the town's mayor is drawn and quartered by citizens driving subcompact cars.) Antrim's black humor is as spiky as those lawn armaments and, sentence by sentence, Elect Mr. Robinson is a pleasure to read, if almost too cerebral a performance.

    The Hundred Brothers, which is quite literally about one hundred squabbling brothers gathered for an annual meal, is another pitch-black comedy, but with more emotional meat on its bones. It's a surprisingly acute (if outlandish) take on the vicissitudes of sibling relationships. The event turns into a free-for-all of broken furniture and hurled insults, with nearly every brother harboring either a physical or psychic bruise. While The Hundred Brothers ends on a strange and falsely abrupt note, the novel remains true to its central subject: "the sorry indignities that pass as currency between us in lieu of gentler tender."


See Also: The absurdities, and the deft wordplay, in Antrim's work call to mind Thomas Pynchon's early novels, Angela Carter, and two young Brits: Will Self and Tibor Fischer.

—Dwight Garner


Atwood, Margaret 1939- b. Ottawa, Ontario


       FICTION: The Edible Woman (1969), Surfacing (1972), Lady Oracle (1976), Dancing Girls and Other Stories (1977), Life Before Man (1979), Bodily Harm (1981), Encounters with the Element Man (1982), Unearthing Suite (1983), Bluebeard's Egg and Other Stories (1983), Murder in the Dark: Short Fictions and Prose Poems (1983), The Handmaid's Tale (1985), Cat's Eye (1988), Wilderness Tips and Other Stories (1991), The Robber Bride (1993), Good Bones and Simple Murders (stories, 1992), Alias Grace (1996), The Labrador Fiasco (1996)


       SELECTED NONFICTION: Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), Day of the Rebels, 1815-1840 (1976), Second Words: Selected Critical Prose (1982), Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1996)


       SELECTED POETRY: Selected Poems, 1965-1975 (1978), Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New, 1976-1986 (1986), Morning in the Burned House (1995), The Circle Game (1998)


Margaret Atwood's work is often described as Canadian, feminist, and grim. This constellation would not ordinarily suggest a writer of enormous popular appeal, but Atwood is not an ordinary writer.

    Atwood has actively participated in defining the characteristics of Canadian literature. "Canada is not an occupied country. It's a dominated country," she has said, arguing that survival is the national obsession, as the frontier has been for the U.S., and the notion of the island in Britain. Her own work represents Americanism by using noise and casual or brutal acquisition. This Americanism is often expressed through Canadian characters. The issue comes together effectively in Atwood's second novel, Surfacing, when the protagonist, while in the Canadian wilderness, comes upon a heron that has been mysteriously lynched.

    Her feminism is equally incontrovertible. The classic Atwood protagonist is usually a woman involved in a destructive sexual relationship, having survived a destructive childhood. The narrative focus is very tight—no one is better than Atwood at the accumulation of perceptions and personal history that establishes fictional character. Her details are perfectly chosen, intrinsically arresting, and absolutely persuasive. The Atwood protagonist is witty, imaginative, and self-absorbed. She has a job that is interesting, at least to the reader, though rarely high-paying. The men in her life are not her equal. But the women in her life also disappoint and betray her.

    Mothers in Atwood's books often eat their young. The Robber Bride is unusual in its depiction of friendship among women, though these particular friendships arise entirely as a defense against the super-villainess, Zenia, a woman with the destructive capacity of a car bomb. Among Atwood's young girls, friendships are decidedly unfriendly. They evidence the clubby viciousness at which girls excel—see particularly, Lady Oracle and Cat's Eye. Atwood's is a feminism of isolation and the individual rather than connection and community. The family is important only as a matter of personal history. And wherever Atwood perceives feminism to be operating a sort of club, she declines to join.

    So it does sound grim: murdered herons, abusive childhoods, isolated victims, and bad sex. But Atwood is often a very funny writer, even when her topic is not. Many of her novels are broadly comic. The best of these are Lady Oracle and The Robber Bride. Even when she is most serious, her protagonists have too much volition, too much energy to depress.

    Plus there are the pleasures of her prose. Her second life, as a poet, is always evident. She draws her images from myth and fairy tale. Her narrative strategies are playful. Like many writers, she sometimes seems as interested in the question of how a story can be told as she is in the story itself.

    Atwood's plots lean strongly, and not always persuasively, on the fantastical. Events are foretold, fortunes are read, visions are seen, the dead appear or speak. These elements often underpin the emotional climax of the book. Her narration is always so firmly grounded in an individual's limited point of view that alternative psychological explanations for fantastic events can't be ruled out. Still, the reader is not encouraged to settle for psychology.

    Cat's Eye is perhaps the novel in which Atwood's usual interests, images, and strategies come together most marvelously. The narrator, Elaine, is a successful artist haunted by a girlhood friendship she cannot entirely recall. The story follows Elaine from forgetfulness to remembrance and is astonishing in its painstaking, painful depiction of childhood. "Little girls are cute and small only to adults," Elaine observes. "To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized."

    Atwood's most famous novel is the atypical The Handmaid's Tale. In the feminist dystopian tradition of science fiction, this is a book set in the near future, in a society run by Christian fundamentalists. It is indeed a grim book whose protagonist, Offred, while no less sensitive than the usual Atwood heroine, is considerably more trapped and tormented.

    The well-received Alias Grace represented another departure for Atwood: her first work of historical fiction. Woven of careful and evocative period detail, the novel is an intensely imagined account of the case of Grace Marks, who was convicted of murder in northern Canada in 1843. Atwood constructs Grace's first-person account so that it manages to conceal as much it reveals. Reviewers noted Atwood's cunning in crafting an ending that was happy for those who wished it so and chilling for readers who prefer to be chilled.

    Atwood is a prolific and accomplished poet, essayist, and writer of short stories. In her most recent collection, Good Bones and Simple Murders, she experiments with a form that falls somewhere between these three. Of particular note are "Unpopular Gals," Atwood's meditation on the fictional role of the villainess and "Happy Endings," her funniest metafictional piece. Her earlier stories are more traditional. Among the most famous of these, "Bluebeard's Egg" and "Rape Fantasies" showcase her gift for writing stories that feel lighthearted but are actually deadly serious.

    Atwood is as appealing to scholars as she is to lay readers. Supernaturally prolific as she is, even more has been written about her than by her. Margaret Atwood: A Biography came out in 1998, authored by Nathalie Cooke, a professor at McGill University and former president of the Margaret Atwood Society. It is the first book-length biography. "I try to stay more or less out of it," Atwood has said, in reference to such scholarly works. "I think of it as a kind of job-creation project."


See Also: Molly Gloss's Dazzle of Day, Carol Emshwiller's Ledoyt, Jane Smiley's The All True Adventures of Lizzie Newton, and A. S. Byatt's Possession.

—Karen Joy Fowler

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Table of Contents

Preface v
Acknowledgments ix
Introduction xiii
The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors 1
About the Contributors 425
Index 435
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Introduction

Introduction by Laura Miller
It's one thing to say the literary landscape has been radically transformed in the past four decades, and something else again to revisit the territory of 1963 by leafing through Esquire magazine's special literary issue published in July of that year. The society it depicts seems startlingly remote. There's a charming naivete to the magazine's confidence in its ability to suss out the scene, from the seven full pages it gives Norman Mailer to evaluate nine books from his chief competitors (yes, they're all men) to the photo essays about the swingin' lives of a beatnik poet and a young Hollywood screenwriter, to the cover story about Allen Ginsberg's jaunt to India, a piece which manages to deftly skirt the small matter of the poet's homosexuality. But most endearing of all is a "chart of power" assembled by L. Rust Hills and stoutly entitled "The Structure of the American Literary Establishment," complete with biomorphic shapes indicating "The Red-Hot Center," "Squaresville" (The New York Times, naturally), and "The Cool World." Twenty-four years later, Hills rather sheepishly reprised his guide to "the literary universe" for Esquire, noting that, in the years between 1963 and 1987, "everything began to come apart and change more or less entirely."
That sense of protean fragmentation prevails today. The world of established literary giants, each one solemnly tapping out his version of the Great American Novel on a manual typewriter, has since dissolved into a fluid, unpredictable marketplace where the next critically-acclaimed, hit-first novel might be written by a fifty-seven-year-old horse-breeder from North Carolina or by a thirty-six-year-old former aerobics instructor from India. The teapot of the literary world has weathered several tempests--controversies over trends, styles, and personalities--in the past forty years, but the sense of a monolithic shared culture seems to be gone for good.
Before I go into how and why that happened, it's important to note that if people in the book business often have shapely wrists, it's because they've elevated hand-wringing to the level of an Olympic sport. Decrying the precipitous decay of literary culture has been a popular activity for as long as writers have lamented their fates, in other words, for as long as there have been writers. In his 1891 novel, New Grub Street, George Gissing complained that "more likely than not," a really good book "will be swamped in the flood of literature that pours forth week after week and won't have attention fixed long enough upon it to establish its repute . . . The simple, sober truth has no chance whatever of being listened to, and it's only by volume of shouting that the ear of the public is held." Protesting the decline of bookselling is a venerable tradition as well, as an 1887 letter to Publishers Weekly, written by the publisher Henry Holt, attests. Long before the advent of television--in fact, even before radio or movies--Holt grieved the passing of the days when "many a substantial citizen" would "drop into the book-store of an evening . . . Now most of those book-stores no longer exist, at least as book-stores. They are toy-shops and ice-cream salons with files of Seaside Libraries in one corner." Those insidious "files of Seaside Libraries" were contributing to "a real diminution . . . in the reading habit" long before the Internet threatened to destroy civilization as we know it.
Nevertheless, things have decidedly changed. The literary establishment Esquire mapped in 1963 stood on the verge of the counterculture-led upheavals of the late '60s, the anti-novel metafictional experiments of the '70s, the identity politics-inspired attacks on the canonization of "dead white men" in the '80s, and a whole cavalcade of much-reviled crazes and trends, not to mention the ascension of such formerly lowbrow media as TV and popular music to the role of defining the spirit of the times. The writers surveyed in this book published their fiction against this tumultuous backdrop.
At the beginning of the 1960s, most American novelists took the greats of previous generations--particularly Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald--as their models. Writers pursuing more idiosyncratic paths in the manner of William Faulkner, writers like Vladimir Nabokov and Flannery O'Connor, were active and even celebrated, but at the center stood the ideal of a big, bestselling, realist novel of social reportage, a form whose obsolescence the young novelist Jonathan Franzen bemoaned in an essay he wrote for Harper's magazine in 1996. Franzen maintains that the last "challenging" novel to find a mass audience and to "infiltrate" the national imagination was Joseph Heller's Catch-22, published in 1961. Catch-22 is a satirical war novel about the yawning gap between officially sanctioned reality and the experiences of its characters, and its success indicated that American culture had begun to entertain doubts about all authoritative pronouncements, including, perhaps, the Great American Novel.
As the decade closed, authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Richard Brautigan, and Ken Kesey were sharing young readers' shelf space with such icons as J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Heinlein, and Carlos Castaneda, whose writings were more likely to blow the mind than define the age. Books by literary lions like John Updike, Saul Bellow, and William Styron still made it to the number one spot on The New York Times bestseller list, but women and blacks were already protesting the way they had been portrayed by such writers. The audience for literary fiction had begun to splinter, and the very notion that one novelist could speak for an entire nation or generation seemed worse than improbable; it was outright and inexcusable hubris. By the 1980s, the bestseller lists belonged to authors of fat volumes of commercial fiction, books whose visceral, rather than social or psychological, concerns could be counted on to appeal to the largest number of readers: thrillers, sagas, horror stories, and the women's genre sometimes known as "shopping and fucking" novels.
In the 1970s, members of various groups who had once compliantly read the designated Big Book of the moment by authors like Mailer and his designated "Talent in the Room," increasingly demanded fiction by and about people like themselves. Women, in particular, defected, leading to a boomlet in novels of middle-class female discontent, a trend that helped launch the career of Margaret Atwood, among many other women writers. Because women continue to buy and read more fiction than men, this development profoundly changed not only the publishing market but the way authors see their place in the world. Franzen wrote, "Writers like Jane Smiley and Amy Tan today seem conscious and confident of an attentive audience. Whereas all the male novelists I know, including myself, are clueless as to who could possibly be buying our books."
This interest in fresh perspectives also fostered a literary blossoming among racial and sexual minorities. Although multicultural idealism would eventually become problematic, it provided early support for major talents--Toni Morrison and John Edgar Wideman in the United States, Salman Rushdie and Ben Okri in England--who otherwise might never have been read, or perhaps even published. At its best, multiculturalism expanded the horizons of the literary audience and immeasurably enriched the variety of fiction available in the average bookstore. Later, at its worst, it led to the glorification of second-rate writers, the establishment of a subtle climate of bad faith, and the exasperation of successful authors of color who chafed at multiculturalist demands that they properly represent their races.
In the meantime, during the 1970s, a coterie of white male novelists retreated to American universities to pursue a variety of experimental writing sometimes called metafiction (because it was often about the nature of fiction itself) or, more generally, postmodernism. Writers like John Barth, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Donald Barthelme, and William Gass were still enshrined in the reading lists of college-level En-glish classes in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but they increasingly fell by the wayside as fiction writers and editors outside the academy embraced realism. In a sometimes bafflingly abstract 1977 diatribe entitled On Moral Fiction, the novelist John Gardner attacked the postmodernists for what he considered a solipsistic obsession with form over the concerns of "true art," which "seeks to improve life, not debase it." (This salvo, notorious for its disdainful naming of names, further confused readers who had thought that Gardner was himself a postmodernist.) On Moral Fiction, like the feminist and multicultural critiques of its time, is a classic example of the American penchant for denouncing perceived schools of writing on grounds that fuse aesthetics and ideology--in other words, bad writing isn't just bad, it's evil. (British writers prefer simply to attack one another's character, a tactic that makes their quarrels much more entertaining.)
The 1980s gave critics much to complain about, beginning with a literary trend often called minimalism, but also, less sympathetically, "K-Mart realism." Was minimalism indeed the prevailing American literary form of the 1980s? It certainly seemed to be, what with The New Yorker and Esquire, two of the foremost American showcases for literary fiction, firmly in its thrall and so many emerging writers naming Raymond Carver as their model. Carver wrote spare, stoic prose about working-class people whose lives hover at the brink of despair. In his style, if not his subject matter, he was an heir to Hemingway, and after his death in 1988 he was held in particularly great reverence. The teacher and editor Gordon Lish (whose own experimental novels would suggest a greater affinity with the metafictionists) was a tireless advocate for minimalism and is known to have stripped Carver's early stories down to their very bones.
Carver wrote mostly short stories, a form that had come to seem marginal in the 1960s and 1970s as fewer and fewer magazines published fiction. The short story, however, proved to be ideally suited to the needs of the writing workshops and MFA programs in creative writing that were sprouting up in many universities during the 1980s. Critics who disliked minimalism often blamed the trend on these programs--particularly the creative writing program at the University of Iowa--and accused universities of graduating indistinguishable writers of "cookie cutter" fiction. It's true that the clean, declarative sentences that are a signal trait of minimalist fiction are the easiest kind of competent writing to teach, and that minimalism's restrained, quirk-free, almost documentary approach is the least likely to offend or irritate a classroom of ten fellow writers. However, it should be noted that university-level creative writing programs also trained such original voices as David Foster Wallace and Denis Johnson (not to mention Flannery O'Connor).
There did seem to be an overwhelming number of young minimalist writers coming up in the mid-1980s, and they did tend to sound an awful lot alike, a situation that, more than anything else, may have stoked the irritation of critics. That irritation, however, paled in comparison with the seething wrath inspired by the rise of the Brat Pack, a trio of mediagenic young writers who emerged at about the same time. The actual books written by Jay McInerney, Brett Easton Ellis, and Tama Janowitz don't have much in common, but the three became permanently linked in the minds of the public. They stood for an attempt to transplant the devices of celebrity culture into the literary world, and despite the handsome sales figures the Brat Pack enjoyed at first, in the end the operation was not a success.
The Brat Pack were young, they photographed well, and they seemed to lead exciting, glamorous lives. McInerney and Ellis hung out at nightclubs with pop stars and models, and Janowitz even made a video that was aired on MTV. The press treated them as the voices of a generation, and people who didn't read a lot of novels bought and read the Brat Pack's books. But the core audience for literary fiction has always regarded them with suspicion. Ten years later, it's remarkable how much outright animosity still greets mention of their names, considering that, since the 1980s, they've had lackluster careers and have exerted no noticeable influence on American fiction. For those idealists who cherish the literary world as the last refuge of the genuine and profound in a larger culture driven by artifice and hype, the Brat Pack interlude is a past trauma whose psychic bruises have yet to heal. Publicity certainly does sell books, but many readers remain leery of any new writer introduced to the public with an excessive amount of fanfare; the writer's second book, justly or not, is quite likely to tank.
In Britain, an influx of fiction from writers dubbed "post-colonial" paralleled the multicultural movement in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s, after the Angry Young Men of the 1950s and 1960s (a loose grouping of writers, including Kingsley Amis and John Braine, who offered an often scabrous alternative to the genteel upper-middle-class literature of the preceeding generation) had for the most part devolved into unvarnished misanthropy and neo-conservatism. At the same time, the creative writing program at the University at East Anglia founded by Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson fostered an impressive roster of graduates, including Rose Tremain, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ian McEwan--a decidedly eclectic crew. McEwan became associated with Julian Barnes and Martin Amis as part of a cadre of stylish, sometimes controversial younger writers, championed by Bill Buford, an American who had taken over the editing of the literary journal Granta. In 1983 Granta put out a list of "The 20 Best British Novelists Under 40" that proved remarkably prophetic and furthered the impression among minimalism-weary American readers that most of the really exciting new books were being written on the other side of the Atlantic or in Latin America, which was exporting such magic realists as the Nobel Prize-winning Gabriel Garcia Marquez to a worldwide readership starved for epic, imaginative fiction.
Of course, the version of history that I've just presented--of a unified literary establishment that fractured into a array of niche interests--is only one way to interpret the changes in English language fiction in the past forty years. Some observers see the various permutations of the novel and short story as a response to the movies. Film can use straightforward storytelling to reflect the way we live now as well as or better than the traditional realist novel. As a result, writers increasingly turned to techniques that can't be accomplished on-screen, or at least not easily, such as formal experimentation, fabulism, and, above all, the artful deployment of voice. Few, in 1960, would have predicted that Nabokov's 1955 novel Lolita would, by the end of the century, be cited more frequently and more fervently by young American writers naming their influences than books by Hemingway or Fitzgerald. The quintessential novel of unreliable narration, written by a novelist who prized an elegant, imagistic style and an elusive authorial stance while despising philosophy and moralizing in fiction, Lolita didn't conform to mid-century notions of an era-defining work. The wizardry of Nabokov's masterpiece, however, was irrevocably literary: no movie could convey such a shimmering suspension of multiple realities.
Narrative nonfiction has also become a competitor for readers' attention. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966), which he described as a "nonfiction novel," and Mailer's The Executioner's Song (1979) are among those writers' finest books and have the advantage of applying the artistry of the novelist to stories made all the more compelling for being true. Tom Wolfe, a founder of the New Journalism of the '60s, wrote a much-discussed essay, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel," for Harper's magazine in 1989 in which he reviled minimalism and called on novelists to bring the research skills of journalists to bear on their work and to paint panoramic portraits of our times. Wolfe had the wild success of his own 1987 novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, to back up his claim that the public craved this kind of social novel, but his call-to-notepads inspired more critical debates than fiction. In 1996, as autobiographies like Mary Karr's The Liars' Club extravagantly outsold literary fiction, James Atlas heralded the "Age of the Literary Memoir" in The New York Times magazine. "Fiction isn't delivering the news," he wrote. "Memoir is."
The critic Sven Birkerts, on the other hand, blames the evaporation of "the Great American Novel, that elusive, totalizing entity that would register like a faithful mirror the hopes, energies, contradictions, and failings of postwar America," on the triumph of a culture of ceaseless, vapid electronic babble in which literature just isn't taken seriously anymore. Although Birkerts belongs firmly in the tradition of those cultural Cassandras and doomsday scenarists who have been depicting society's imminent slide into darkness since the age of Aristotle, he has a point. Authors often seem to be returning the slight by excluding pop culture and the media from their fictional worlds; such ephemera are often thought to trivialize or date the work.
However, a handful of literary novelists have been intent on conveying the media-saturated texture of contemporary life, most notably Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, perhaps the most critically revered writers of fiction working today. These authors depict a world of disorienting complexity and outlandish, even absurd events often directed by unseen, sinister forces. They pack their hefty novels with science, history, philosophical ruminations, and dozens of characters, techniques that earned them the epithet "encyclopedic." The encyclopedic novelists borrowed material and themes from all corners of high and popular culture, but particularly from the intellectual vein of science fiction, a genre with a tradition of speculation about the nature of humanity and about the more monstrous aspects of complex technologies and the societies that create them. (Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow was nominated for a Nebula, science fiction's most prestigious award, in 1974.) The visions of writers whose work resides solidly within the science fiction genre--William Gibson and Philip K. Dick in particular--gained wider audiences as readers found startlingly prophetic reflections of contemporary life in their fantastic and often outright paranoid scenarios.
The question of how contemporary fiction should deal with mass culture was explicitly taken up by an heir to the encyclopedic tradition, the young novelist David Foster Wallace, in "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," as essay published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993. Wallace describes a new generation of "Image-Fiction" writers so acclimated to the mass media that they "use the transient received myths of popular culture as a world in which to imagine fictions about Ôreal,' albeit pop-mediated characters." (Mark Leyner, one of these writers, produces fiction that incorporates influences ranging from ad copy to scientific treatises, in what Wallace describes as "witty, erudite, extremely high-quality prose television.") Wallace then questions the "irony and ridicule" deployed by these writers because, he claims, television is already ironic about itself, and thus the medium has deftly co-opted its would-be satirists. "Television . . . has become able to capture and neutralize any attempt to change or even protest the attitudes of passive unease and cynicism that television requires," Wallace maintains. He ends by calling for sincerity and for novelists who "treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction."
Most (if not quite all) of the authors covered in this book consider themselves to be aiming for something like that, whether they deal with life in the United States or in Nigeria, whether they write complicated, brainy epics or quiet domestic dramas, whether they take as their subjects urgent political situations or eternal metaphysical quandaries. It's conventional to bemoan the fact that the novelists of 2000 mean less to their society than the novelists of 1960 meant to theirs, but the literary landscape I explored in the process of editing this book also seems much richer and more varied than the one obtained forty years ago. Readers themselves--from Oprah Winfrey to the organizers of the private reading groups that have proliferated across the nation to the participants in Internet discussion groups like Salon.com's Table Talk community--are increasingly determining which are the "important" books from a staggering array of new titles published each year, based on criteria that often defy the literary establishment's. These are tough times for publishers and perhaps for authors as well, but for readers an abundance of voices and stories await at local (and virtual) bookstores. The red-hot center may be impossible to find, but we have the whole world instead. Reprinted from Salon.com edited by Laura Miller by permission of Viking Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 Laura Miller. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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Interviews & Essays

Writing About Reading
From the beginning, we intended The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors: An Opinionated, Irreverent Look at the Most Fascinating Writers of Our Time for those remarkable and slightly mysterious individuals who read contemporary fiction for pleasure. It seemed to us that, although you can find a complete bibliography of an author's work and a survey of critical responses to that work in several excellent, comprehensive references, none of these really answer the question that matters most to someone holding a novel in his or her hands: Why should I read this?

On the other hand, if you suspect that you might like, say, Margaret Atwood's writing, a newspaper or magazine review of her latest novel isn't likely to tell you if the new book is one of her best, or how it fits in with the rest of her fiction, or how it compares to books by other, similar writers. In fact, it's quite possible that the review will stick to a plot summary and the mildest expressions of opinion, that it will seem cautious and uninspired, and by the time you finish it you won't have any clearer sense of whether Atwood is for you or not.

For, although most of us read fiction to be moved, captivated, delighted, and provoked, most of today's writing about reading doesn't reflect the intensity of our best (and worst) reading experiences. It's easy to find passionate writing about film and music by critics who know their field and care about it deeply. Mainstream literary criticism is anemic by comparison, and academic literary criticism usually isn't about literature at all. We hope this book helps to change that. In a world packed with easier, flashier opportunities for diversion, many people still do make the choice to read because it satisfies a hunger that only a good book can sate. This volume is our attempt to speak to that craving.

The Salon.com Reader's Guide is for you if you love a book and want to find out more about the author; if you love all of an author's books and want to track down similar ones by other writers; if you belong to a reading group and are looking for new books for the group to explore; if you're wondering what critics think of an author you admire (or despise); if your college roommate or brother-in-law insists that you'd love so-and-so's novels but you'd like to know a bit more before you take the plunge; if you've been choosing the new books you read by their covers or reviews in the local newspaper and are thinking there's got to be a better way; if you usually read only 19th-century classics and you'd like to expand your horizons -- or if you've got a free evening, a weekend, a long flight, or a vacation ahead of you, and you're just looking for a book that won't waste five or six irreplaceable hours of your life.

Above and beyond our hope that this book will lead you to other books, we also designed it to be a good read in and of itself. We selected contributors whose criticism for our web site, Salon.com, and for other publications struck us as exceptionally engaged, lively, perceptive, and smart. They made us think, laugh, and question our preconceptions. They made us want to argue with them all night, and they made us want to head for the local bookstore with a shopping list. We don't expect you'll always agree with them because we certainly don't. Like every review you read in a newspaper or magazine, the entries in this guide are opinions, and opinions come in many varieties -- all varieties, in fact, except "right" and "wrong." Other publications and critics opt for a lofty, detached, authoritative approach to literature, an approach that makes literary fiction seem like a dead and dusty monument. Whether a novel or short story is good, great, or mediocre, whether an author is writing for the ages or for the dustbin of history, whether a literary trend represents a daring advance or a dismaying sidetrack -- all of these questions are and should be up for debate because debate, like enthusiasm, keeps the literary world interesting and alive.

--Laura Miller

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 13, 2001

    I'll be reading great books forever...

    I bought this anthology and haven't been able to stop reading and re-reading the reviews. I've made lists of books I must read and have tried to reconcile the insights presented with my own opinions and teachings. I highly recommend this book for those who love to read fiction and like suggestions from those who know, or at least sound like they do.

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