Study Guide

Ann Beattie

Ann Beattie Essay - Beattie, Ann (Vol. 146)

Beattie, Ann (Vol. 146)

Introduction

Ann Beattie 1947-

American short story writer, novelist, essayist, children's writer, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Beattie's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 8, 13, 18, 40 and 63.

Beattie's fiction primarily focuses on the post-World War II “baby boom” generation. Her characters are typically passive and unable to comprehend their own lives and that of those around them, trapped in dissatisfactory situations. Beattie employs a prose style composed of flat, declarative sentences and detached observations, paralleling the listlessness of her characters. Her protagonists are typically well-educated people who experience a sense of loss as they attempt to reconcile the idealistic convictions of their youth with their present lifestyles. Refusing to resolve the dilemmas developed in her fiction, Beattie rarely explores the inner motivations of her characters. She focuses instead on their external environment, providing idiosyncratic and telling details, including frequent references to consumer goods and popular songs.

Biographical Information

Beattie was an only child, born in Washington, D.C. in 1947. She did not thrive in the District of Columbia public school system, and earned poor grades. Nevertheless, Beattie was accepted to American University, where she studied English. After graduation, Beattie attended graduate school at the University of Connecticut. She published her early stories in the New Yorker magazine at the encouragement of her professor J. D. O'Hara. Her first collection, Distortions, was published in 1976, along with her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter. Beattie served as a visiting writer and lecturer at the University of Virginia from 1975 to 1977, and as the Briggs-Copeland Lecturer in English at Harvard University in 1977. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1978, an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters award in 1980, and a distinguished alumna award and an honorary doctorate of humane letters from American University in 1980 and 1983, respectively.

Major Works

Beattie's early volumes of short fiction focus on characters who lack permanent emotional ties and who experience pervasive, vague despair and confusion regarding the direction of their lives. Distortions features characters who are more affected by the consequences of experimenting with drugs and sexual freedom in the 1960s than by the political upheavals of that era. Secrets and Surprises (1978) depicts similar characters living in the increasingly conservative 1970s. Many of the characters in this collection are involved in relationships that they are afraid to leave, or remain saddened by the memory of a long-lost lover. Where You'll Find Me, and Other Stories (1986) contains pieces in which the past helps illuminate the characters' present dissatisfaction. In this collection, Beattie depicts people at the onset of middle age who have never achieved the success or happiness they seemed destined for in their youth. Attempting to adjust to the death of their daughter, the couple in the story “In the White Night” possess a maturity lacking in most of Beattie's earlier characters. The most celebrated story in this volume, “Janus,” concerns a woman's obsession with a bowl given to her by a former lover. The woman's life is defined by the loss she's experienced; and the beautiful bowl, perpetually empty, becomes a symbol of her own life. What Was Mine (1991) is a collection that focuses on affluent suburbanites struggling with their own mortality and the ravages of divorce. These stories also explore the randomness and unpredictability of life. In the title story, Ethan's war veteran father is killed by a falling bucket of paint and his mother is unable to cope with the unexpected loss.

Beattie's novels utilize similar episodic styles and concentrate on the short, intense moments of unenlightened feeling that were found in her short fiction. Chilly Scenes of Winter relies heavily on conversations between people in their late twenties, whose nostalgia for the 1960s reveals their prolonged adolescence and bewildered approach to adulthood. In Falling in Place (1980), Beattie focuses on a man's inability to choose between his family and his lover—a dilemma that is unexpectedly resolved when his son accidentally shoots his daughter. Love Always (1985) is a satire of both show business and the publishing industry. The novel centers around Nicole Nelsen, a fourteen-year-old soap opera star who takes a vacation to visit her eccentric aunt in Vermont. Beattie introduces nearly a dozen principal characters and the narrative is told from several viewpoints. Beattie's highly acclaimed novel Picturing Will (1989) is divided into three sections—“Mother,” “Father,” and “Son.” Interspersed throughout the novel, Beattie includes italicized, first-person meditations on the relationship between parent and child. The novel follows Will, whose natural father abandoned him. His mother is an ambitious photographer and her second marriage provides Will with his only true parental figure. Another You (1995) is more realistic and less minimalistic than Beattie's previous novels. The protagonist Marshall Lockard is an English professor in New Hampshire who develops a relationship with a student. His life is further complicated by his dying stepmother, his troubled family past, and his wife, who is also having an affair. My Life, Starring Dara Falcon (1997) covers events in a friendship between two women: Jean, a naive New Hampshire housewife, and Dara, a flamboyant stranger who befriends Jean. The novel explores issues of trust and narcissism in relationships. In 1998, Beattie published a volume of short fiction titled Park City: New and Selected Stories. The stories in the collection primarily focus on vignettes from the lives of a variety of neurotic middle-class characters.

Critical Reception

Known for the simplicity of her prose, Beattie is often referred to as a minimalist, a label which she rejects. Several reviewers have hailed Beattie as a spokesperson for her generation, but at the same time, assert that she does not idealize her subject matter. Steven R. Centola stated that Beattie “holds a harsh mirror up to her troubled society and reveals with disconcerting clarity its imperfections.” The stark quality of Beattie's prose, coupled with an absence of commentary upon her characters' actions or their inability to act is considered unsettling by many reviewers. Patricia Storace stated, “Some of Beattie's characters and settings have at best the life of images; there can be something oddly interchangeable about them, as if they were not quite important to their own stories, and could be shifted to other stories with the right cosmetic changes.” Reviewers have noted that as Beattie's writing matured, she moved away from her minimalist beginnings to a more realistic style. Some critics have complained that when Beattie's fiction became increasingly realistic, her sparse characterizations remained too sketchy for her new style. While some commentators object to her characters' lack of psychological and historical backgrounds, Beattie has been praised for the photographic accuracy of her descriptions, and many agree that her stories realistically reflect the disjointed and haphazard nature of contemporary life.

Principal Works

Chilly Scenes of Winter (novel) 1976

Distortions (short stories) 1976

Secrets and Surprises (short stories) 1978

Falling in Place (novel) 1980

The Burning House (short stories) 1982

Love Always (novel) 1985

Spectacles (children's literature) 1985

Where You'll Find Me, and Other Stories (short stories) 1986

Alex Katz (essays) 1987

Picturing Will (novel) 1989

What Was Mine (short stories) 1991

Another You (novel) 1995

My Life, Starring Dara Falcon (novel) 1997

Park City: New and Selected Stories (short stories) 1998

Criticism

Ann Beattie with Steven R. Centola (interview date 17 September 1988)

SOURCE: “An Interview with Ann Beattie,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter, 1990, pp. 404-22.

[In the following interview, conducted on September 17, 1988, Beattie discusses her writing, including her style, subject matter, and themes.]

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1947, Ann Beattie is most recently the author of the critically acclaimed novel Picturing Will (1989), a moving and often disturbing account of fragmented family life in contemporary American society. Establishing her literary reputation in 1976 with the publication of a novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, and a collection of short stories, Distortions, Beattie has...

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Ann Beattie with Patrick H. Samway (interview date 12 May 1990)

SOURCE: “An Interview with Ann Beattie,” in America, Vol. 162, No. 18, May 12, 1990, pp. 469-71.

[In the following interview, Beattie discusses her writing and her novel Picturing Will.]

Ann Beattie is a fiction writer who lives in Charlottesville, Va. Her works include Distortions (1976), Chilly Scenes of Winter (1976), Secrets and Surprises (1978), Falling in Place (1980), Jacklighting (1981), The Burning House (1982), Love Always (1985), Where You'll Find Me, and Other Stories (1986) and Picturing Will (1990). This interview focuses on her thoughts about writing...

(The entire section is 2198 words.)

Rand Richards Cooper (review date 18 May 1990)

SOURCE: “Ann Beattie: Less than Minimal,” in Commonweal, Vol. 117, No. 10, May 18, 1990, pp. 322-23.

[In the following review, Cooper provides an unfavorable assessment of Beattie's Picturing Will.]

Last November, Harper's Magazine published a lengthy essay by Tom Wolfe, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” in the which the New Journalist-cum-Newer Novelist lamented the state of contemporary American fiction. One aesthetic mistake singled out for special dismay was the movement often called minimalism—those “K-Mart Realists,” as Wolfe put it, who write about “lonely Rustic Septic Tank Rural settings, in a deadpan prose … with the emotions...

(The entire section is 1470 words.)

William H. Pritchard (review date Autumn 1990)

SOURCE: A review of Picturing Will, in Hudson Review, Vol. 43, No. 3, Autumn, 1990, pp. 489-97.

[In the following excerpt, Pritchard complains that Beattie's Picturing Will, “which begins intelligently enough, grows ever more random, trivial, and maddeningly unfocused.”]

… I wanted to like Ann Beattie's novel [Picturing Will] since it was advertised as both more human and more formally ambitious than her made-to-order stories (some of which stay in the memory) and her previous novels—of which Falling in Place, with its monstrous adolescent John Joel, is perhaps the most telling.1 But alas, Picturing Will, which...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

Patricia Storace (review date 15 August 1991)

SOURCE: “Seeing Double,” in New York Review, Vol. 38, No. 14, August 15, 1991, pp. 9-11.

[In the following excerpt, Storace points out the strengths and weaknesses of Beattie's writing in What Was Mine.]

… Ann Beattie appears to be living a double life as a writer. As a writer, she may be married to literature, but she seems to be having an affair with television. There is a strain of Beattie story that can be read in a state something like the kind of sensuous amnesia that television often provokes. In this kind of Beattie story, character, decor, and language are smoothly recognizable without being truly specific, as if they were the results of casting instead...

(The entire section is 2290 words.)

John H. Hafner (review date 12 October 1991)

SOURCE: A review of What Was Mine, in America, Vol. 165, No. 10, October 12, 1991, pp. 253-54.

[In the following review, Hafner lauds Beattie's short story collection What Was Mine, stating, “Ann Beattie tells fine stories that are complex in their sense of time, perceptive in their revelations of people and compelling in their concerns for the ordinariness of life and the unpredictability of the future.”]

For the people in the world of Ann Beattie's short stories, things fall apart. In [What Was Mine], her ninth book (her fifth collection of short stories), the characters are wonderfully realized as they live their lives with friends and...

(The entire section is 870 words.)

Leo Schneiderman (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Ann Beattie: Emotional Loss and Strategies of Reparation,” in The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 53, No. 4, 1993, pp. 317-33.

[In the following essay, Schneiderman analyzes the emotional loss and abandonment experienced by the characters in Beattie's fiction in terms of their love relationships.]

Much of the psychoanalytic literature dealing with emotional loss has focused on the early origins of narcissistic injury. Masterson, for example, speaks of “the mother's libidinal availability for the child's separation-individuation needs” (1981, p. 132). The child is viewed as introjecting a “withdrawing maternal part-object,” with...

(The entire section is 7786 words.)

Ann Beattie with James Plath (interview date Summer 1993)

SOURCE: “Counternarrative: An Interview with Ann Beattie,” in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 32, No. 3, Summer, 1993, pp. 359-79.

[In the following interview, Beattie discusses her writing style and how it has changed throughout her career.]

Book tours have a way of turning writers into gypsies. After Ann Beattie finished reading from What Was Mine at a Chicago-area book store, I drove her to her hotel, where, upon finding cold champagne and a fruit tray, compliments of her publisher, she expressed the same measure of surprised delight as a tourist might. Her appearance was equally down-to-earth. Beattie wore a loose tunic, patterned stretch pants, and bold...

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Don Lee (essay date Fall 1995)

SOURCE: “About Ann Beattie,” in Ploughshares, Vol. 21, Nos. 2-3, Fall, 1995, pp. 231-33.

[In the following essay, Lee traces the history of Beattie's career.]

Myth has it that Ann Beattie published her first short story in The New Yorker when she was twenty-five years old, signed a first-read contract with them, and thereafter made five to seven annual appearances in the venerable magazine—with stories she would write in one sitting, in one afternoon.

As myths go, this one is pretty accurate. In the early seventies, Beattie was a Ph.D. candidate in literature at the University of Connecticut, and a professor, J. D. O'Hara, who was a...

(The entire section is 1702 words.)

Miriam Marty Clark (essay date Winter 1996)

SOURCE: “Postmodernism and Its Children: The Case of Ann Beattie's ‘A Windy Day at the Reservoir,’” in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 61, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 77-87.

[In the following essay, Clark analyzes how Beattie's “A Windy Day at the Reservoir” changes perceptions of narrative time, and cause and effect.]

In her book, Childhood and Cultural Despair, Leah Marcus observes that the appearance of childhood as an important literary subject “seems always to be a barometer for important cultural change” (242). Marcus posits a relation between social and psychic disorientation and a literary concern with childhood, arguing finally that in...

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William H. Pritchard (review date Spring 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Another You, in Hudson Review, Vol. 49, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 135-44.

[In the following excerpt, Pritchard praises Beattie for the way she presents “the common stuff of life” in Another You.]

… Ann Beattie has always seemed to me essentially a writer of short fiction, although from the beginning of her career, with Chilly Scenes of Winter, and Distortion, both published in 1976, her long fiction has kept pace with her volumes of stories. The new novel [Another You] is her fifth and longest, surely her most ambitious.1Another You eschews (as did Picturing Will, her last) the minimalist...

(The entire section is 688 words.)

Andy Solomon (review date 21 June 1998)

SOURCE: “All Her Lonely People,” in Book World, Vol. 28, No. 25, June 21, 1998, p. 5.

[In the following review, Solomon praises the stories in Park City and asserts that they show Beattie's growth throughout her career.]

Like a boxed set of Miles Davis CDs, Ann Beattie's offering of new and selected stories [Park City] is both superb in itself and an essential piece of history. Begin on page 137, after the eight new stories, and as you move through selected work from Beattie's previous five collections, then back for the new tales, you trace the evolution of one of our era's most vital masters of the short form.

Four stories from...

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Lara Merlin (review date Winter 1999)

SOURCE: A review of My Life, Starring Dara Falcon, in World Literature Today, Vol. 73, No. 1, Winter, 1999, p. 145.

[In the following review, Merlin lauds Beattie's exploration of love and friendship in My Life, Starring Dara Falcon.]

Few topics have been as thoroughly mapped in literature as love. Yet the inevitable connection of love and sex tends to pull readers' attention toward the excitement or drama of the latter and away from the … what? ambiguity? intensity? shock? … of love. So it is refreshing that Ann Beattie's sixth novel, My Life, Starring Dara Falcon, recounts the unconsummated love between two friends, the title character and the...

(The entire section is 566 words.)

Brian Evenson (review date May–June 1999)

SOURCE: A review of Park City: New and Selected Stories, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 19, No. 1, May–June, 1999, p. 194.

[In the following review of Park City, Evenson commends Beattie for being a consistently strong writer, although notes that her earlier work took more risks.]

Ann Beattie's collection of new and selected stories, Park City, gathers together thirty-six stories spanning Beattie's career. Each of Beattie's previous collections is liberally represented (from four stories from her first book, Distortions, to eight new uncollected stories), giving the reader the sense of both where Beattie has been and where she's...

(The entire section is 349 words.)