Ten Writers Who Are Reinventing the Art of Storytelling

These emerging novelists are changing the face of fiction

| November-December 1998

Faced with a veering, crazy-making, constantly fragmenting contemporary world, a new breed of fiction writer is emerging. What's remarkable about these authors’ work—which represents some of the best novels and short stories being written today—is not only how inventively it portrays the complex realities of life on the edge of the 21st century, but also how gracefully it moves beyond the literary trends of the recent past.

A lot of mainstream American fiction in the 1980s was “dirty realism”: trailer-park or tract-house tales littered with references to cheesy consumer products, with condescension never far away. Meanwhile, novels of gay awareness, Hispanic and Asian American experience, and punked-out urban apocalypse highlighted the themes of ethnic, social, and sexual identity. The towering figure of Toni Morrison helped bring new depths of myth and history to the distinguished tradition of African American writing.

The 10 writers featured here—first-time novelists as well as veteran writers, each with a book published in the past year—have mastered those advances and taken the art of storytelling into new territory by altering and recombining them in fascinating ways. We selected them after conversations with writers, editors, and other discerning readers across the country. They're not the most famous names on the fiction shelves, but they've all sparked the enthusiasm of book people by the richness of their visions and the bold ways they frame them. All of these writers shun the coziness of the small and private perspective, the comforts of the ethnic or social cocoon, in order to portray not just characters, but our multifarious modern world itself, with its unpredictable mixtures of viewpoints, heritages, high and low cultures, inner and outer realities. They paint big pictures, give context, make sense of the world by refusing to make it simpler than it is.

Riffing on life in an African American Gotham

Colson Whitehead was a child growing up in New York when he first felt the odd allure of elevator inspection records, “those little certificates under glass,” he explains, “where the inspectors leave their initials month after month.” The elevator inspector, he says, “is a kind of secret hero in New York.”

Whitehead, 29, wrote television criticism for The Village Voice after graduating from Harvard. He liked the new breed of thoughtful, complex police shows like Homicide and the British series Prime Suspect as well as the hip crime novels of Walter Moseley and James Ellroy, and decided to try his hand at a book about an elevator inspector-sleuth. “At first, I thought I'd plunge the character into a situation that he knows nothing about. But then I began to think more and more about the world of elevators. Elevators began to bleed into other areas of my thinking.”

11/24/2009 2:56:14 PM

i just wrote down, the names and titles of the ten recommendations i'm not sure at my advanced (78) age i can deal with some of the topics but i'll try it is a different world and the authors seem to be plugged in in a way i've never experienced before in my literary adventures i was an english teacher for many years, hooked into the canon i now wish i hadn't been

5/4/2008 12:00:00 AM

You would be remiss if you did not add the novelist, LiNCOLN PARK to this list. She has written two, mind-blowing novels (one as a collection of four short stories) that question convention at every turn. In SCULPTURED NAILS AND NAPPY HAIR, she took us back to the 1980's in fast paced, ever-darker contexts of socioeconomic disadvantage and dichotemies of being the 'lesser' color and 'lesser' sex ( as noted in the non-fiction book, SHIFTING by Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ph.D.); through backdrops of Alaskan sunsets and sado-masochism. In THE BREVITY OF THE SELVES, Park writes about the after-effects of incest on a family; in a way that I have never before seen. In fact, one is hard-pressed to find many fiction books regarding the AFTERMATH of incest, in the first place! This novelist is the Hope Doamond-- hidden in the vast jewelry box of amazon.com paperbacks. If you read her work, you will not be deceived.

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