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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(This introduction is followed by an excerpt from the book with information on Edward Abbey, Chinua Achebe and Dorothy Allison)

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.

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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