Arts/Literature

Who are the most important writers of our generation?

In my current S&R Honors tribute to William Gibson I say that I think he’s the most important author of the past 30 years, and I acknowledge that this is certainly something of a mouthful. I’ve been gratified by the comments, both here and over at io9, where the post was linked by Charlie Jane Anders. It’s great to make a point, and even better when you can spark some really intelligent commentary from people who know what they’re talking about.

One such comment at io9 came from Spaceknight, and it struck me as something I probably should address.

I would be curious who he would put on the shortlist of close competition for that position. King? Gaiman? Rowling? other ideas?

That is more than a fair question. To these three specifically:

  • King is a prominent writer, but he’s hardly important in the same way that Gibson is. Prolific, yes. But socially and culturally influential, no.
  • Rowling frankly isn’t a great writer per se. A writer with a great concept, a decent craftswoman, and somebody with a knack for captivating a certain audience (and I’m part of that audience), for sure. She does get credit for promoting reading to kids – in fact, making books cool again is surely her greatest accomplishment, and it’s a worthy one. So in that respect, she is absolutely important. In fact, she’s more important than she is good.
  • Gaiman is a fantastic writer, and American Gods deserves every morsel of critical acclaim it got. And yeah, Good Omens, co-authored with the equally wonderful Terry Pratchett, is maybe the funniest book I ever read. But again, there’s a difference between being a good writer, even a great writer, and being a culturally important one. I’m not sure I can see that Gaiman’s work has changed the world.

So, how would I answer Spaceknight’s question? I’d begin with some caveats. First, I guess I’m only talking about English language writers. Second, I’ve hardly read all I’d need to read to speak with ultimate authority on the question (lending credibility to those who might accuse me of talking out of my ass). I read a lot, but I’m like everybody else alive in this day and age: for every great book I read, there are probably 100 that I don’t have time to get to. Third, his alternate suggestions indicate that he’s thinking within an SF/Fantasy frame, but I’m thinking beyond that and am concerned about great writers period.

These things given, here are some writers I might nominate for the discussion. And remember, we’re talking roughly last 30 years, so since Reagan took office (how’s that for a cultural watershed?) and since the first Gen Xers (that would include me) graduated from high school.

Cormac McCarthy. I need to read the rest of his work, but sweet holy hell, if all he ever wrote was Blood Meridian he’d deserve a place in the conversation. That, quite simply, is one of the remarkable accomplishments I have ever encountered in literature of any genre, and it’s important because of the way he simply annihilated our expectations about the possibility and requisites of language in period pieces. I have no idea how he managed it, but the world of being a serious novelist changed the day that novel hit the stands.

Salman Rushdie. Has anyone ever written a work of fiction that incited such insane levels of real world controversy and violence? The legacy of The Satanic Verses lives on today, as fundamentalist Islam has now assumed the right to kill anyone who engages in creative activity that it deems offensive.

Charles Wright. I’ve long held that Wright is our greatest living poet (although he certainly isn’t our only great one). From where I stand, Wright’s singular achievement is that he has insisted on the magical, mystical power of language in an era where everyone else seems hellbent on leveling poetry to death. Banal and one-dimensional, pedestrian and simplistic, contemporary poetry lacks depth and complexity and the sorts of richness we associate with the masters of past eras. Instead of writing something legitimately powerful and evocative, too many poets today write something butt-simple and not even vaguely interesting and then they rely on the ideology of the day to dare anyone to suggest that it isn’t every bit as good as anything Eliot ever wrote. Well, folks, it sucks. And Wright is one of the few poets who seems to grasp the need for poetry to aim higher.

Neal Stephenson. If I were to include someone else from the SF/Fantasy world it would have to be Stephenson, who is almost an alternate Gibson in some ways. Gibson helped blaze the trail that Snow Crash clearly followed, and then as WG was figuring out that he needed to abandon SF proper for SpecFic, Stephenson took the lead. The Baroque Trilogy manages to be historical fiction, sort of, that’s almost SF in some important ways. Then Anathem comes along and finds a way to meld Medievalism with Quantum Mechanics. He really is stunning. I enjoyed his foray into straight genre, REAMDE, but I hope he’s back to the mind-bending stuff soon.

And one more, for purposes of raising an interesting question.

Mark Danielewski. Maybe, in time? His full-frontal assault on narrative form in House of Leaves was gripping (and the fact that he wrapped a nerve-jangling tale around it also counts for something). Another thing that struck me was how his formal tactics lent themselves to other types of lit. Specifically, HoL was central to the approach I used in  Archipelago, my long poem (published a couple of years ago in Uncanny Valley). It’s part poem, part drama, part blog, part found e-mail, part photography, part obituary notice, and I simply could not have gotten there without Danielewski. None of this changes the world, I don’t suppose, but the implications for literature are certainly interesting. Let’s check back in a couple more books and see where he is.

So there. Some ideas, and if I think about it some more I might be back with other to consider. In the meantime, let’s hear from our readers. Who do you regard as the most important writers of our generation?

Image Credits: Wall St. Journal, IGN

Categories: Arts/Literature, ArtSunday

12 replies »

  1. To begin with, this is a trap post in basic ways – it will lead into the great, likely to remain unresolved, argument of our age – should literary/artistic estimations of merit be based on popularity with/taste of the “majority” or is there still some standard/set of standards that can/should be applied in determining “worth/importance/impact”? Of course all this raises another question – should the discussion be about whether a writer has changed the culture? I look at your description of Rushdie’s importance: he pissed off some religious fundamentalists. That certainly doesn’t devalue his work; but is that why his work has value? The same is true of Gibson – how, for example, would you say he is more important than, say, Jules Verne?

    Since we no longer value the opinions of scholars/critics (I’d like to claim this is hyperbole, but too much evidence can be marshaled to argue that it isn’t) who have (supposedly) spent their lives in the study of literature (a problem mostly of their own making since they long ago decided that literature was the last thing they wanted to discuss in their “literary criticism”), then possibly all we can really have to go on is public opinion.

    But this is a trap, too, since the nature of distributed community (and that’s what the Interwebs have seem to have fostered more than any other cultural agency that might be ascribed to them) promotes both “silo-ing” of readers by genre interest (sci-fi, spec. fic, crime fic, chick lit, fantasy, lit fic, etc., ad nauseum) and the spread of what we can call either derisively, as Andrew Keen does, the “cult of the amateur,” or what Ian Jack calls semi-admiringly “the age of the gifted amateur.” In the first case we are inundated by waves of writers (I use the term generously) who act more in imitation of talented individuals they admire (remember the author of FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY was inspired by the TWILIGHT series) or we will get what Jack hopes we will get, writers who treat novel, poetry, or other creative writing as a sideline.

    What all this precludes is any sort of genuine consensus based on criteria about which there is any semblance of agreement from the majority of interested parties.

    So while the discussion will be lively, the likelihood it’ll do anything for us culturally is practically nil. I don’t know if that’s good or bad – it’s just the nature of the beast we’re trapped in this labyrinth with.

    I’m not necessarily trying to be contrarian for the sake of it here – this stuff matters deeply to me – I even have seriously considered giving up writing because, to the culture I find myself in, my efforts seem less and less important when, after spending years training and studying my efforts seem to be less important than those who research the market and write for the only measure that seems to matter – sales. I’m not motivated by money as much as I should be – and in a confusing time such as ours, caring about being an artist seems a good way to make oneself terribly unhappy….

        • Becca: Great nominations – the first three women who came to mind, in fact. I think I’m the only guy left who hasn’t yet read HANDMAID’s TALE, but it’s on the list.

          Broke: You know, every time I try and establish criteria and set the parameters, I find myself involved in heated debates about the criteria and parameters. So while I agree with you completely – we can’t know who’s greatest until we know what great means – I’m going to leave it to you guys to decide what your vote means. Then I’ll sucker you into revealing your criteria. Then we’ll all jump on you… 🙂

    • >> in a confusing time such as ours, caring about being an artist seems a good way to make oneself terribly unhappy….

      As opposed to what? It seems to me that there are many “traps” out there that are much more successful at capturing a lot more people and making them even more unhappy.

      I enjoyed your post, however!

  2. I don’t know that I have enough experience to jump into this conversation, but like any idiot writer, I’m doing it anyway. I think limits are needed to determine who the greatest writers of our generation are. Besides just having published within the past thirty years, should you not specify why they are great writers? What are the defining elements?

    I’m no academic, but I think if I come from a piece of work that has changed my perception of the world and causes me to look at a corner of the universe a bit differently, that’s a great piece of work.

    I don’t mean in some small way. I mean this: when I set Orwell’s 1984 down after reading it, I was changed. I looked at the future in a different way and worried about it. I thought about it for days afterwards and even today, I refer back to it on occasion.

    The story of Winston Smith caused me to view the future of our world cautiously.

    Did Stephenson’s Snow Crash do that? I’m sorry to say it did not for me. It was a brilliant piece of work, the first to work cyber space into literature, but was it life changing? Did it change the way we look at other literature or the world?

    I don’t think so.

    What defines a great writer? One piece that contributes to a social change? If that is the case, I would have to agree with Sam that Rushdie is quite important in a list of social reformers, simply because we were reminded that even in this age, writing can be a dangerous sport. Rushdie does not hit us over the head with his atheism, though he is devout. His literature does make us think about ‘how’ we think about religion, but then since there are no parameters in the defining of a great writer, doesn’t Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens do the same?

    I have a tendency to want parameters,..

  3. I love a trap – the more elaborate, the better!

    I’d toss Alice Walker, Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison into the ring. But if it came down to choosing one fighter, I’d pick Walker.

    Walker’s contribution to writing is so important that she is considered an Important Writer. Not only an important woman writer, not only an important African-American writer –though she is both of these, but an Important Writer.

    In my mind, Walker helped change who we read and who we read about. That’s a big deal.

    THE COLOR PURPLE changed the American canon in a way that reminds me of NATIVE SON. A writer who can crack that canon, whose writing can push to the top of that established pile of Important Writers (mostly white men, who have been Kings of the Mountain for quite some time) is Important. A writer who can make many people read and know stories of people that have been disenfranchised and voiceless and, thereby, change our understanding of our history and world is Very Important.

    You also have to give Walker props because she brought Zora Neale Hurston to the top of the pile with her.

    P.S. I have a lot of love for the Kings of the Mountain…except for Hemingway. Seems like a killjoy.

  4. If we’re going to do this – and I still have my doubts (see above) – we have to have some standard(s) and some sense of where each of us is coming from. Here’s where I’m coming from:

    – There are prejudices in your suggestions that reflect your tastes. I know you love Charles Wright. I like him too, but I like Fred Chappell even more. And he’s won the Bollingen Prize and the T.S. Eliot Award. BTW, how is Wright in “our generation”? He was born in 1935 – Chappell in 1936.

    – I don’t read much sci-fi because I don’t like it. So Stephenson makes little impression on me. There’s that silo thing going into effect.

    – Mark Danielewski is more to your taste – Douglas Coupland is more to mine. I find the same kind of affinity with some of Coupland’s social zeitgeist (and some interesting structural turns that reflect larger cultural trends in communication) as you do in Danielewski’s ergodic experiments.

    – We can agree that Cormac McCarthy and Salmon Rushdie are important. But are they more important than than numerous others? I struggle with that.

    – I think you overrate Gibson. Again, important writer – but vastly more important than some others I could name? Not sure.

    Finally – great comment by brokeartist. Maybe her comment about Orwell gives us a standard? At least one we can sat we apply, though we might disagree about which writers have caused us to see the world differently. And again, conclusions are going to be idiosyncratic and inconclusive, I suspect….

    • There are prejudices in your suggestions that reflect your tastes. I know you love Charles Wright. I like him too, but I like Fred Chappell even more. And he’s won the Bollingen Prize and the T.S. Eliot Award.

      Ah. I think Wright is great because I like him? How about I like him because he’s great. That’s how I was taught to deal with poetry, after all.

      He’s also won a number of prizes, including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer.

      BTW, how is Wright in “our generation”? He was born in 1935 – Chappell in 1936.

      That has been explained. We’re talking about work since around 1980. That’s where this conversation started and I’m trying to follow through on that theme.

      I don’t read much sci-fi because I don’t like it. So Stephenson makes little impression on me. There’s that silo thing going into effect.

      Heh. You REALLY need to read the Baroque Trilogy. A lot. I think you’d come away impressed by his dedication to understanding a number of subjects, including literature.

      Mark Danielewski is more to your taste – Douglas Coupland is more to mine. I find the same kind of affinity with some of Coupland’s social zeitgeist (and some interesting structural turns that reflect larger cultural trends in communication) as you do in Danielewski’s ergodic experiments.

      Nothing bad to say about Coupland here, although honestly I regard his as being more important for sociological reasons than anything. Then again, given what all I have set forth, that’s in-bounds, isn’t it?

      We can agree that Cormac McCarthy and Salman Rushdie are important. But are they more important than than numerous others? I struggle with that.

      Well, that’s the discussion, isn’t it?

      I think you overrate Gibson. Again, important writer – but vastly more important than some others I could name? Not sure.

      Did you read my original piece? I make the case pretty clearly, and his import goes WELL beyond literature. Maybe there are others more important. That’s why I’m asking who they are.

  5. I can’t imagine any book more “important” than Beloved by Toni Morrison, in the last thirty years. Is it one work or the collected writings of an author that we look to in order to describe “the greatest”? Just seeing the name Gaiman in print, compared to others, is blasphemous to me. I know some people who think American Gods is the best book they ever read, but they don’t read all that much! When I read it, after their recommendation, it told me more about them than anything else. Alice Munro tops my list as well. George Saunders, Richard Ford.
    Corman McCarthy, are all excellent. However, they are all well over fifty.What is the best book written in the last ten years? An”Important” book. Which way is writing turning after the age of the memoir?

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