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.
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.
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.
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.