Excerpt from The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors by Laura Miller, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors

by Laura Miller

The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors
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    Aug 2000, 512 pages

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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.

Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Viking Penguin. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher.

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