Ann Beattie (BEE-tee) is perhaps the most imitated short-story writer in America and one of the writers most identified with the minimalist school of fiction. She was born to middle-class parents—her father was an administrator in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare—and she grew up in Washington, D.C. In 1969, she earned a B.A. in English from American University and an M.A. from the University of Connecticut one year later. She began work toward a doctorate at Connecticut but left without completing the program. She was married to and later divorced from David Gates, who would become a writer for Newsweek and an acclaimed novelist. In 1988, she married her second husband, the painter Lincoln Perry. For a time, Beattie taught at Harvard University and the University of Virginia. Generally regarded as literature’s spokesperson for those who came into maturity in the 1960’s, she acknowledges the role that television, rock music, and the drugs often associated with the counterculture play in her work and in the lives of her characters. She resents, however, the tendency to ignore other aspects of her work because of the critical fascination with what critic Joseph Epstein has labeled the “hippoisie.”
Beattie began writing fiction while she was a student at the University of Connecticut, partly, she says, out of boredom with graduate school. While she was still a student, her stories began to appear in small magazines such as the Western Humanities Review and the Texas Quarterly. After making nearly two dozen submissions to The New Yorker, her first story to be accepted there, “A Platonic Relationship,” appeared in the April 8, 1974, issue. From that time on, she has been a regular contributor to the magazine; many of the stories in her collections first appeared there. Beattie’s debut in book form was almost unprecedented, for her first collection of stories, Distortions, and her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, appeared simultaneously in 1976. Most critics, at that time and since, have preferred Beattie’s stories to her novels. Although the characters and situations in Distortions and Chilly Scenes of Winter are more extreme, perhaps, than those in subsequent collections, they are typical of the themes and style associated with Beattie.
These characters are, in most cases, educated, middle-class or upper-middle-class men, women, and children who find themselves disappointed and disillusioned despite having achieved much of what is commonly believed to define the American Dream. They tend to be unhappy in love, in family life, and in their work; if not actually unhappy, they are merely coping and without any feeling of real satisfaction. Friendship is important to the characters and is the refuge they most often seek from the daily lives and family situations that create their conflicts. Charles, the protagonist of Chilly Scenes of Winter, says at one point that he knows too much to be happy, a coda of sorts for a feeling that permeates all of Beattie’s work: The well-educated, self-conscious generation from which she draws her main characters finds bliss, or the happiness of the Norman Rockwell image of family, impossible in view of an overwhelming knowledge. Thus the struggle of the characters becomes one of balancing self-conscious knowledge of self and world with the desire for innocence and joy. In Secrets and Surprises, Beattie’s second collection of stories, the characters tend to be a little older and their struggles more mundane...
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