The Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors

An opinionated, irreverent look at the most fascinating writers of our time.

Published August 18, 2000 7:00AM (EDT)

If you love a book and want to find out more about the author, if you're wondering what critics think of an author you admire (or despise), or if you've got a free weekend and are looking for a book that won't waste your time, "The Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors" is for you.

An all-original, A-to-Z guide to over 225 of the most fascinating writers of our time, penned by an international cast of talented young critics and reviewers, "The Reader's Guide" contains profiles, reviews, and bibliographies of the authors who matter most now -- from Margaret Atwood to Tobias Wolff, Paul Auster to Alice Walker. Also included are essays and recommended reading lists from the authors themselves: 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 Guide to Contemporary Authors" will reflect the intensity of your best (and worst) reading experience -- it will inform, captivate, delight, and stir debate. Most importantly, it will answer the question close to the heart of any fiction lover holding a novel in his or her hands: why should I read this?

Exclusive Excerpts:

Preface: Who's in the book, who's not and why

Introduction: The death of the Red Hot Center -- the story of fiction since 1960

Stephen King Entry

Alice Walker Entry

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The title "The Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors" is no mere matter of form, although to make our point perfectly clear perhaps the word "reader" ought to be italicized and underlined. From the beginning, Dwight Garner (who conceived of the project) and I (who edited it) intended this book for those remarkable and slightly mysterious individuals who read contemporary fiction for pleasure. We didn't imagine an audience of researchers or scholars or critics or prize committees or members of the publishing industry, even if some of those people still do occasionally read a book in the hope of enjoying it. 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 resources 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, while 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 comparision, 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 Reader's Guide" is for you if

  • You love a book and want to find out more about the author
  • You love all of an author's books and want to track down similar ones by other writers
  • You belong to a reading group and are looking for new books for the group to explore
  • You're wondering what critics think of an author you admire (or despise)
  • 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
  • You work in a bookstore or library and want to learn more about contemporary fiction in order to better serve your customers or patrons
  • You walk into a bookstore or a library and have no idea where to start
  • 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
  • You usually read only 19th-century classics and you'd like to expand your horizons
  • 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,, 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.

Who's In and Who's Not

Neither time nor money were available to us in infinite quantities, so we had to set some parameters for the list of writers to be included in this book. We decided to limit it to authors who write or wrote fiction in English, whose major works were published since 1960, and who had published more than one book. We wanted to focus on writers whose literary reputations did not yet seem firmly set, either because they were still alive and working or because they hadn't been studied extensively. Norman Mailer's literary legacy, for example, still struck us as up for grabs, while we felt we'd already read everything we needed (or wanted) to read about the individual Beats. Authors who are better known for their nonfiction writings we decided to save for a second volume.

Most of the authors covered in this book write literary fiction, but we've included a few writers of bestselling commercial fiction as well. Some, like Jacqueline Susann, are here because they significantly shaped the way publishers and authors relate to the reading public; others, like John Grisham, because we'd never read their books and wanted to know what the fuss was about; but most, like Stephen King, because we've read them and enjoyed them and thought it was high time to stop pretending otherwise. We've also included a few authors who wrote and published their major works before the 1960s, but whose popular impact (massive in the case of J.R.R. Tolkien) wasn't felt until later.

You'll find entries in this book for authors you've never heard of and, conversely, no entries for authors you might consider more significant. Since we knew from the start that this guide couldn't be comprehensive, we decided to let our contributors' enthusiasm and curiosity be our guides. We requested their feedback on our initial list of about 500 authors. If a critic we trusted made a convincing case on behalf of a seemingly obscure novelist, we added that author to our final list. With a few exceptions (see Alice Walker), if no one voiced any interest in an author's work, that name was cut. We reasoned that if we let received opinions regarding literary importance direct too many of our choices, we'd wind up with a guide as dutiful and lifeless as the stuff we were trying to counteract.

As a result, the book you're holding in your hands could be called willful and irresponsible. Some sacred cows take a hit or two. Allegedly minor voices are exalted. Designated titans are treated with insufficient reverence. The favorite writer of somebody somewhere has been omitted; somebody else's bete noire gets too much credit. Probably the list is insufficiently balanced in some way. These sorts of offenses are inevitable when you're compiling a book based on personal preferences (and we warmly encourage anyone who's convinced it should have been done differently to put together their own book).

Once we'd divvied up the entries, we encouraged our contributors to think of you, their reader, as an intelligent, interested friend or relative who'd just asked "So tell me about John Updike. What are his books like?" With some authors, a bit of biographical background is called for, while others might cry out to be defended from charges ranging from arrogance to impenetrability to frivolity, and still others need to be rescued from oblivion. We asked each contributor to recommend a handful of the author's books (these titles are set in boldface in the entry's bibliography) and to single out the book to select if you only read one of those (you'll find an * by that title in each bibliography). Finally, we requested that each entry suggest other writers you might want to seek out if you like the work of the author in question. You'll find those recommendations in the "See Also" section at the end of each entry.

You'll also find, scattered throughout the " Readers' Guide", lists of recommended books gathered from well-known authors and brief essays on assorted literary topics. The lists (appearing under the rubric "Book Bag") are a popular weekly feature on our Web site, Salon Books). The essays take on intriguing issues that don't fit within the format of an author entry.

Most of the contributors to this book spent many hours reading and writing in exchange for monetary compensation that was, we must confess, pretty close to negligible. We think the thoughtfulness, commitment and passion for reading they brought to the task shines in these pages, and it's our fondest wish that this book will inspire similar feelings in you, too.

--Laura Miller

What the critics are saying

"..It's like tranferring to a strange school and finding the one kid who's obsessed with all the same stuff you are."
-- David Kipen, Book Editor
San Francisco Chronicle

"...Not only do the fine young critics in the Reader's Guide filet their subjects with finesse and wit, but this erudite and bitchy collection of profiles, reviews, bibliographies and writers' reading lists also makes for compulsive reading."
-- Vanity Fair

"Salon Guide: Dish with a side of sass
There are many guides to literature. What sets the Salon guide apart is its tone. While some of the entries are adoring (see J.R.R. Tolkien, Graham Swift), others are blistering (see Alice Walker)."
-- USA Today

"Overwhelmed...? This mini-encyclopedia may be just the inspiration you need."
-- Washington Post Book World

"Many guides to authors and literature tend to be dry; the biographies of even the most lively writers are often delivered stiffly. 'The Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors' is a refreshing departure; its essayists aren't afraid to display irreverence or zeal, and the book's essays and reviews are filled with insight and original observations. Especially useful are recommendations in each entry of work by other, similar authors."
Carolyn Alessio
-- Chicago Tribune

"The profiles are brief and well written, packed with career details and judgments about individual books. They conclude by directing readers to related authors. Ann Beattie is 'the first writer for whom divorce and remarriage were a given, deployed without explanation.' Minnesota's Louise Erdrich is hailed for her 'original imagery and flawless dialogue.' David Bowman, a novelist from Racine, Wis., is said to write 'brazenly, without shame -- the way a toddler runs in circles though the sprinkler, gleefully naked and free -- about subjects that lesser, more timid writers wouldn't even broach on the analyst's couch.' Then, in an adjoining segment, Bowman offers his picks for five contemporary noir classics and introduces them this way: 'You know what noir is. I do too. Noir is a gun and a bottle and a girl racing out of the city at midnight in a stolen sports car driven by a gambler wincing from a bullet hole in his left side, the wound bandaged by a money belt full of guilt, sex and bad karma.' Other features like that abound: Calvin Trillin names five books that made him laugh; Ian McEwan picks five novels about the world of work; Joyce Carol Oates names five favorite documentary-style novels."
-- Minneapolis Star Tribune

"... a juicy (and meaty) review of 225 contemporary fiction writers called The Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors. Claiming that most reviews are 'anemic' at best, Miller and her coterie of reviewers examine the writers and their works, blemished and all.'s praise is hearty (on Michael Chabon's 'The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,' 'an impossibly young writer published an impossibly elegant novel') and their criticism is a bit daunting ('John Grisham writes beach novels, and not just because it's easier to squint past his clunky prose and cartoon characters if you're wearing sunglasses...'), but their no-holds-barred approach offers the reader a rare clarity. Especially helpful are the sections on recommended reading, many writers' lists of favorites (like 'Books That Made Me Laugh' by Calvin Trillin) and critical essays (like 'Every Novel is a Lesbian Novel' by Dorothy Allison). A laugh-out-loud read of merit, Miller and Begley's book is one no fiction lover should be without."
-- Publishers Weekly

By Salon Staff

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