Discussion Topics

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Ann Beattie is said to be nonjudgmental about her characters. Does this detachment makes her characters more or less realistic and complex?

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How does Beattie create ironic distance between her narrators and the characters and events being described?

Show how Beattie’s treatment of the struggle for happiness differs in two of her short stories.

How does “Dwarf House” question the idea of normality?

How is driving a metaphor for the complexities of life in “Shifting”?

Is Falling in Place only the story of a dysfunctional family or does it say something about such themes as individuality and responsibility?

What does Picturing Will seem to be saying about the nature of parenthood?

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While Ann Beattie’s reputation rests primarily on her short stories, particularly those that first appeared in The New Yorker, she has also written several novels. The first, Chilly Scenes of Winter (1976), appeared simultaneously with Distortions, a rare occurrence in the publishing world, especially for a first-time author. Her second novel, Falling in Place (1980), is her most ambitious and her best. In Love Always (1985), she uses an approach that is closer to that of her short stories than in either of the previous novels. The subject matter is narrower, and the characters are more distanced from the narrative voice. Her novel Picturing Will was published in 1989. In 1986 and 1987, she worked on her first nonfiction project, the text to accompany a monograph containing twenty-six color plates of the paintings of Alex Katz. Her last novel, My Life, Starring Dara Falcon (1997), has been scorned as her weakest yet; The New York Times called it an “ill-conceived experiment” that “must surely mark a low point” in her career.

Achievements

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Ann Beattie has been called the most imitated short-story writer in the United States, an amazing claim for a woman whose publishing career began in the early 1970’s. Along with such writers as Raymond Carver, she is a premier practitioner of minimalism, the school of fiction-writing that John Barth has characterized as the “less is more” school. In 1977, she was named Briggs-Copeland Lecturer in English at Harvard, where she was apparently uncomfortable. She used a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation grant to leave Harvard and move back to Connecticut, where she had attended graduate school. In 1980, she received an award of excellence from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Distinguished Alumnae award from American University. In 1992, she was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

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In addition to her novels, Ann Beattie (BEE-tee) has published nonfiction as well as numerous volumes of short stories, including Distortions (1976), The Burning House (1982), What Was Mine, and Other Stories (1991), and Follies: New Stories (2005). She has also published two children’s books: Goblin Tales (1975) and Spectacle (1985).

Achievements

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Hailed by many as the spokesperson for her generation, Ann Beattie has won numerous awards for her novels and short stories focusing on vapid, upper-middle-class characters. Along with several scholastic honors, Beattie has received a literary award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, a Distinguished Alumnae Award from American University, and the PEN/Bernard Malamud Award. A member of the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN) and of the Authors Guild, in 1992 she was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Bibliography

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Aldridge, John. “Less Is a Lot Less (Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Amy Hempel, Frederick Barthelme).” In Talents and Technicians. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992.

Atwood, Margaret. “Stories from the American Front.” The New York Times Book Review, September 26, 1982, 1, 34. Discusses The Burning House as it represents the loss of the American dream for the children of the 1960’s. For Beattie, freedom equals the chance to take off, run away, split. Beattie’s stories chronicle domesticity gone awry, where there are dangers and threats lurking beneath the surface of even the most mundane events. Observes that most of the stories in this collection concern couples in the process of separating.

Barth, John. “A Few Words About Minimalism.” The New York Times Book Review, December 28, 1986, 1, 2, 25. Explores Beattie’s spare style and considers her fiction as it represents a current stylistic trend in the American short story. Spends a considerable amount of space describing the origins of the contemporary minimalist movement in American short fiction. Sees this form as a nonverbal statement about theme: the spareness of life in America. Places Beattie’s work among that of other minimalists, including Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, James Robison, Mary Robison, and Tobias Wolff. Discusses Edgar Allan Poe as an early proponent of minimalism. Says that Beattie’s fiction is clearly shaped by the events surrounding the Vietnam War. A helpful essay for gaining an understanding of Beattie as a minimalist.

Beattie, Ann. “An Interview with Ann Beattie.” Interview by Steven R. Centola. Contemporary Literature 31 (Winter, 1990): 405-422. Provides biographical information and background on Beattie’s fiction. Beattie discusses herself as a feminist writer and how she goes about creating credible male protagonists. Discusses Falling in Place, Love Always, Chilly Scenes of Winter, and Picturing Will.

Berman, Jaye, ed. The Critical Response to Ann Beattie. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. Includes contemporary reaction to Beattie’s novels and collections of short stories, as well as scholarly and academic analyses of her work by various critics.

Gelfant, Blanche H. “Ann Beattie’s Magic Slate: Or, The End of the Sixties.” New England Review 1 (1979): 374-384. Examines Beattie’s short stories as reflecting the concerns of adults who came of age during the hippie years. Discusses Beattie’s desolate landscapes and the pervading sense of doom found in much of her fiction. Focuses on Secrets and Surprises and Distortions, saying that they are a requiem for the freedom and wildness of the United States of the 1960’s. Beattie concentrates on what amounts to the trivia of the everyday in order to make her points about the minutiae of the average person’s life. Also compares Beattie’s fiction with that of Joan Didion. Sees Beattie as a writer who explores the violence, inertia, futility, and helplessness of contemporary American culture.

Hansen, Ron. “Just Sitting There Scared to Death.” The New York Times Book Review, May 26, 1991, 3, 14. Discusses Beattie’s collection What Was Mine and Other Stories. Hansen says that Beattie’s fiction provides insightful portraits of people in their thirties and forties who experience broken marriages and shattered dreams. Comments on Beattie’s ability to portray a realistic male point of view. Says that her females in this book are ill-defined and hard to understand. Hansen is critical of Beattie’s style as being too elliptical and relying too much on inference rather than on direct commentary. Despite this shortcoming, he says that the collection is a success, describing it as an almost photojournalistic chronicle of the disjunctions in the contemporary world. Categorizes What Was Mine and Other Stories as being more introspective than Beattie’s earlier collections of short fiction.

Lee, Don. “About Ann Beattie.” Ploughshares 21, no. 2-3 (1995): 231-235. A good biographical and critical essay, based on an interview and including extensive quotations. Beattie points out that as she has matured, her novels have become more complex and therefore more time-consuming to produce. She describes her difficulties with Another You, which left her even more partial than before to short fiction.

McKinstry, Susan Jaret. “The Speaking Silence of Ann Beattie’s Voice.” Studies in Short Fiction 24 (Spring, 1987): 111-117. Asserts that Beattie’s female speakers puzzle readers because they tell two stories at once: an open story of the objective, detailed present juxtaposed against a closed story of the subjective past, which the speaker tries hard not to tell.

Montresor, Jaye Berman, ed. The Critical Response to Ann Beattie. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. Collection of essays presents contemporary reviews of Beattie’s novels and collections of short stories as well as scholarly and academic analyses of her work by various critics. Novels discussed include Chilly Scenes of Winter and Picturing Will.

Murphy, Christina. Ann Beattie. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Provides a good general introduction to Beattie’s work. Discusses her major stories, illustrating her central themes and basic techniques, and examines the relationship of the stories to her novels. Also addresses Beattie’s place in the development of the contemporary American short story.

Opperman, Harry, and Christina Murphy. “Ann Beattie (1947-): A Checklist.” Bulletin of Bibliography 44 (June, 1987): 111-118. A useful guide to Beattie’s work. Contains a helpful brief introductory essay that identifies Beattie as an important authorial voice that came of age during the 1960’s. Views her as a descendant of Ernest Hemingway. Her characters are refugees from the Woodstock generation, idealistic dreamers caught by ennui, drifters and people who are emotional burnouts. Says that her characters resemble F. Scott Fitzgerald’s: Both have outlived their youthful romanticism and are now materialistic rather than idealistic. Also compares her to John Cheever and John Updike. Provides both primary and secondary bibliographies through 1986.

Porter, Carolyn. “The Art of the Missing.” In Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, edited by Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985. Argues that Beattie economizes not by developing a symbolic context, as James Joyce and Sherwood Anderson did, but rather by using the present tense and thus removing any temptation to lapse into exposition, forcing the background to emerge from dialogue of character consciousness.

Stein, Lorin. “Fiction in Review.” Yale Review 85, no. 4 (1997): 156-165. Presents an excellent summary of Beattie’s early fiction and then analyzes My Life, Starring Dara Falcon. Asserts that the novel has generally been underrated by critics.

Trouard, Dawn, ed. Conversations with Ann Beattie. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. Collection reprints interviews with the author from 1979 to 2004, including an interview conducted by Trouard. Beattie addresses her sense of contemporary American life and misconceptions regarding her work; she also compares writing to photography. Includes chronology and index.

Wyatt, David. “Ann Beattie.” Southern Review 28, no. 1 (1992): 145-159. Presents evidence that a marked alteration occurred in Beattie’s fiction in the mid-1980’s. Instead of withdrawing from life and its dangers, her characters began to choose to care about other people and to commit themselves to creativity. A perceptive and convincing analysis.

Young, Michael W., and Troy Thibodeaux. “Ann Beattie.” In A Reader’s Companion to the Short Story in English, edited by Erin Fallon et al. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. Focuses on Beattie’s short stories but includes informative biographical material on the author.

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