To get up to speed with contemporary American literature who are the 10 writers I need to read?

I’m a 57 year old man and while I read quite a bit it’s mostly website articles and magazines and a river of similar stuff. I read the occasional book but it’s mostly sci-fi stories or similar. I’ve read some Wolfe (Bonfire) here and Updike (Rabbit) there but I haven’t really chowed down on much long form literature since college.

I was reading this article on Joan Didion and realized that while I have seen her name floating around various book review Sunday magazine sections over the years I had no idea what she was really all about and I was completely unfamiliar with her work.

After reading the article I’m going to look into her work.

If my goal was to get up to speed on the current state of modern American literature who are the 10 most important writers I need to read and what individual books of theirs specifically? Who would your list contain?

[li]George R. R. Martin[/li][li]Cormac McCarthy[/li][li]Michael Chabon[/li][li]David Foster Wallace[/li][li]Jonathan Franzen[/li][li]David Sedaris[/li][li]Jeffrey Eugenides[/li][/ol]


Lists would differ according to your own criteria for the Top Ten, and your definition of “contemporary”: do you want living writers? Writers active in the 20th century? Writers active from 1970 (or some other year) onward? Writers whose importance has been recognized with major awards? Writers who the list-maker feels have been the most influential, irrespective of award-recognition?

From any one reader, you’d probably get a different list for each of these.

Well… writers like Didion I supposed who are considered BFD’s by their writing contemporaries. Writers with stories to tell.

I would strike Martin and maybe Sedaris. I would add:

[li]Joyce Carol Oates[/li][li]Toni Morrison[/li][li]Thomas Pynchon[/li][/ul]

Maybe Phillip Roth? Mailer? Wolfe?

I read all the RR Martin GOT series and could feel it getting boggier, more bloated and less focused as the story advanced. There was a palpable sense that he was writing it under duress. Oddly the TV show is more focused and better crafted in many ways than the later books.

I read “Little Big” by Jon Crowley about 2 years ago because of a SDMB recommendation and he was amazing stylistically, but the story meandered so much it sort of lost the forward momentum at some point, and became less a story and more of a literary tone poem. I finished it but had to push to the end.

Martin doesn’t belong on any “literature” list.

Definitely McCarthy, Oates and Pynchon. Add more Updike. Some Doctorow. Irving?

Limiting it to living writers, I’d suggest Marilynne Robinson, Alice McDermott, Russell Banks and Junot Diaz as serious candidates, in addition to several authors already named (Oates, Roth, Morrison, Eugenides, Chabon and Pynchon).
As much as I loved Irving when I was in my twenties, I can’t get through his more recent stuff and have a hard time re-reading him now. Franzen and McCarthy aren’t my cup of tea.

Anne Tyler is another good one. Jane Smiley as well. Hard to limit myself to 10…

Strike Franzen and add Tim O’Brien, Toni Morrison, Ursula Le Guin, Larry McMurtry, Louise Erdrich, Stewart O’Nan, Donna Tartt and Mark Helprin.

Oops, sorry, I see you wanted specific books, so:

The Things They Carried or Going After Cacciato, by Tim O’Brien
Beloved, by Toni Morrison
The Wizard of Earthsea, or The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
Lonesome Dove, by Larry Mc Murtry
The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich
The Names of the Dead, by Stewart O’Nan
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
A Soldier of the Great War, by Mark Helprin

Times 1000.

I don’t know your time frame, but if you’re including the latter half of the 20th Century, I’d recommend Saul Bellows’ “Herzog” and “Humboldt’s Gift”.

Martin and Sedaris are both definitely pop culture picks, but if you want to get caught up on culture they’re not so bad I don’t think.

The list definitely depends on what he means by contemporary. I would not call Roth contemporary.

Don Delillo?

All right, my specifics:

  1. Joyce Carol Oates, A Bloodsmoor Romance. Now, this may just be because it was the first thing I read by her, but I freakin’ loved it. A book jacket blurb described it as “Little Women as written by Stephen King,” which is great, but the book is far sharper and funnier than that, and maybe more grotesque.
  2. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian. It’s half prose, half poetry, and it drives a lot of people up the goddamned wall. It’d be a lot easier to read if he’d just use the occasional quotation mark. You just gotta go with it, because if you do, it’ll take you on a helluva ride, beautiful and terrifying and bleak and thoughtful.
  3. Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. It’s not my favorite by him (I’m partial to Gentlemen of the Road), but it’s quite good, an epic tale of two friends who write comics together.
  4. Toni Morrison, Beloved. One of the seminal works about slavery, IMO.
  5. Ursula Le Guin, Left Hand of Darkness. Betcha I surprised you with that one, eh? It’s several decades old, though, my oldest recommendation, so if you’re looking for something more modern, give it a pass.
  6. Philip Roth, The Plot Against America. A what-if involving Nazi sympathizers in the US in the 1930s.

Others will have to fill these out. Other than Blood Meridian, I’m not super-attached to any of these.

Larry McMurtry should be on the list.

How does Paul Auster rank? I have his New York Trilogy lying somewhere.

I’d add Arthur C Clarke for Great Ideas and solid science. Two particular choices – Fountains of Paradise and Rendezvous With Rama.

Add To Kill a Mockingbird for the sheer beauty of the prose.

Not American (and he died not too long ago, so if “contemporary” means “living”…)

Thank you all for your suggestions! I will explore them.

I rather agree with that 7 author list, minus Martin. I would add Barbara Kingsolver (Bean Trees, ** Animal Dreams**), Richard Russo (Mohawk, Empire Falls), and John Irving.