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

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors

by Laura Miller

The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors by Laura Miller X
The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors by Laura Miller
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • Paperback:
    Aug 2000, 512 pages

  • Rate this book

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt

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.

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

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Speak No Evil
    Speak No Evil
    by Uzodinma Iweala
    Young Nigerian American writer Uzodinma Iweala is fast becoming known as a powerful chronicler of ...
  • Book Jacket: Winter
    by Ali Smith
    "God was dead; to begin with." This first sentence of Winter perfectly sets up the dreamy journey ...
  • Book Jacket: A Land of Permanent Goodbyes
    A Land of Permanent Goodbyes
    by Atia Abawi

    When you're a refugee, everyone has lost, at least for the time being... And the journey ...

  • Book Jacket: Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions
    Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions
    by Mario Giordano
    Munich matron and self-described worldly sophisticate, Isolde Oberreiter, has decided to retire to a...

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Anatomy of a Miracle
    by Jonathan Miles

    A stunning novel that offers an exploration of faith, science and the meaning of life.
    Reader Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    Sometimes I Lie
    by Alice Feeney

    This brilliant psychological thriller asks: Is something a lie if you believe it's the truth?
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win The Balcony

The Balcony
by Jane Delury

A century-spanning novel-in-stories of a French village brimming with compassion, natural beauty, and unmistakable humanity.


Word Play

Solve this clue:

One N U G

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.