Who are the most promising contemporary writers that have been published since 1990 and why might they achieve literary immortality?

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Since 1990?

Michael Chabon

Roberto Bolano (disqualified on account of being dead?)

Sherman Alexie

Toni Morrison (nothing major since Beloved, but still kicking around and never out of the running)

John Irving (Til I Find You, gorgeous!)

Denis Johnson

Jane Smiley

Lawrence Norfolk

In answer to an earlier post, Rowling's Potter books have the virtue of being well written (for the most part) as well as compelling. I take issue though with the idea that a book can only endure if it finds popular success. Ulysses is still around and topping many "best ever" lists--even Hemingway skipped to the last chapter on that one. And Wuthering Heights certainly had to wait in a dark and moldy corner of the literary universe before finding success. When the Modern Library released its top 100 list some years ago, the compilers used "mass appeal" as a criterion for excluding The Lord of the Rings, conveniently forgetting to apply the same filter to quite a chunk of other works that did make the list. On its web site, the Modern Library also publishes the top 100 Readers List, on which LOTR ranks #4, crowded out by the major novels of Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard. All this is a roundabout way of suggesting that durable books are books that continue over time to evoke a meaningful response in readers, high brow or low. The past does not control a monopoly on great works, neither is a work "of merit" because it is old.

Personally, I don't read a whole lot of recent fiction for a couple of reasons. First, I get distracted and irritated by highly specific cultural references to things such as the brand name on the candy wrapper blowing by. Unless there's a reason it's a Hershey Semi-Dark Chocolate, I don't want to know about it. Second, I get bored and irritated by dialog that strives for realism at the expense of forward motion. Rowling is exceptional at conveying the essence of adolescent conversation while translating it into readable dialog. Third, there is a kind of sameness to a lot of contemporary writing--the workshoppiness that what's-his-name complained of and got slammed for, though I don't detect it quite so much anymore. Fourth, what I see instead is a kind of rambling toward a conclusion after a strong start (think Swamplandia), which I think is less the fault of writers and more the neglect of publishers who are more focused on project management and the bottom line than in providing strong editorial guidance. Even with all my nitpicking, though, there are some spectacular authors being published.

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Jonathan Franzen is one of my favorite recent authors.  His book The Corrections really made sense to me, and I have read all of his others since.  His latest book was Freedom.  I also like Dave Eggers and Cormac McCarthy.  The Road gave me goose bumps. 

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One author I think should be added to the list is Laura Hillebrand, author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend and Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption.  Both are meticulously researched, very readable, and evoke the time period while telling the story of two important  characters, the people around them, and the fire each ignites in the minds of the public.  Seabiscuit represents the hopes of the little people during the Great Depression when hope was in very short supply. Louis Zamperini, a soldier in World War II and a former Olympic runner, exemplifies the title words survival when he survives a Japanese prison camp, resilience when he manages to keep coming back in the camp after many would have quit, and redemption when he forgives his captors. Unbroken is the more important book of the two because of the current military issues of suicide and PTSD which so affect our returning veterans.  This book offers hope, I think, for those who suffer upon returning to civilian life.  http://www.enotes.com/unbroken


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Just when I thought that I had no particular contemporary favorites, I was amazed at myself to come up with a list of particular favorites which both myself and my students, have enjoyed together throughout time. Louis Lowry's Number the Stars brought about tears in many middle schoolers who never imagined the horrors of kids their age through WWII. The Giver was also a huge success. 

I also follow Frank McCourt and Malachi McCourt. Although I agree with those who doubted the complete veracity and the strangely exact details of Angela's Ashes and 'Tis, it still does not prevent me from becoming extremely inspired and moved by the reality of poverty and alcoholism in diverse sectors in Ireland.

Barbara Kingsolver is a wonderful contemporary author, and as far as those who really make the mark I have to say that Laura Esquivel of Like Water for Chocolate fame seems to have obtained the cosmic blessings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as she successfully used magical realism to bring about one of the most delicious and moving tales.

Like I said, I have many more that I never thought of before as favorites. In fact, the list seems to grow more and more!








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Possessing an original style that evokes Faulkner at times (His Blood Meridian has been compared to Faulkner's As I Lay Dying), Cormac McCarthy is a worthy contemporary writer. While The Road may prove to be far overrated--even if he did win the Pulitzer Prize for it--McCarthy's trilogy of All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain demonstrate a depth unknown to many contemporary writers.

Another writer who exhibits great originality and technique is Annie Proulx. Her black comedy, The Shipping News (a Pulitzer Prize winner) is unique and so darkly funny. Each chapter has a sketch of a sailor's knot; the main character, who is an anti-hero if ever there were one, is named Quoyle and is described as "a large loaf of a man." Yet, amidst the dark comedy is a memorable poignancy--a great read!  Proulx has also written many worthy short stories, among them "Brokeback Mountain."



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I think that some of our most memorable contemporary authors that people will look back to and signify as being 'important' authors from the turn of the twenty-first century are not going to be the high-brow, artsy types, but rather those authors who had mass appeal, in terms of readership and pop culture.  J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, for example, is going to continue to be relevant and popular for young adult readers fifty years from now; Rowling re-energized the stagnant young adult market.  I could easily see The Hunger Games being taught in classrooms for its dystopian elements and strong themes.  

Dickens, Twain, Shakespeare--They were all amazing writers, but also had mass appeal in their own time.  Some of our brilliant writers right now may be amazing, but I predict they get lost in the shuffle, simply because not enough of the population is reading their works or even discussing them.  Literary immortality depends wholly upon massive amounts of people actually caring about the author's work.  The books and authors with the 'staying power' to be memorable in the future are going to be the same ones to achieve mass popularity now. 

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Recently, I've been thinking about Norman Mailer, how famous he once was, and how quickly his work has seemed to fade from relevance... I still read his stuff, but like so many eNotes folks, I'm a book junky. Plus, I have a fascination with the question at hand, to which Mailer relates as an object lesson. He wrote zero masterpieces and, it seems to me, only a masterpiece stands the test of time...But even then, the writer is not guaranteed a perpetual audience. Just look at Saul Bellow. Anyway, getting to the point: 

J. M. Coetzee, the Nobel Prize winning author from South Africa, is a writer with a large reputation and a good chance at having his books continue to be read in the years to come. Though Coetzee has won arguably the biggest prize in letters, it seems to me that his greatest works, his skill as a novelist, and his fusion of progressive political outlook with his role as an artist each remain under-appreciated. 

I have only been reading Coetzee's work for five years or so, but of all the contemporary writers I have read, I find his work the most haunting and often the most daring. However, as his career has gone on and he has grown more experimental, I tend to like his early works which are short, enigmatic and less overtly political than his later books, though those are good too. 

Waiting for the Barbarians is a book that I would recommend to everyone who likes great and serious literature. It's a short novel that is ripe for conversation. This is one of those books, like The Stranger, that takes longer to discuss and figure out than it does to read. I mean that in the best way possible. 

I don't want to present my case too strongly here. Coetzee has written many books and I have not read them all. I hold some in great esteem and others, well, not so much. As a figure in the arts, Coetzee presents us with an example of a person who understands his position as being one of social responsibility. In addition to being a master of the craft, this is might be one of the greatest indicators of longevity in the arts. 

Other people who come to mind as contenders for the title of "writer who has published something since 1990 and will continue to be read into the future" are Phillip Roth, Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. Jonathan Franzen is the darling of the literary community right now, so I feel like he should get a mention. 


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Jennifer Donnelly, an award winning author,  falls into the category of an excellent modern writer.  For young women readers, in particular, Jennifer Donnelly sets a high standard.  Her novel A Northern Light (A Gathering Light in Great Britain)  has been heralded by critics and readers alike: "[The novel is] an ambitious, beautifully written coming-of-age story."

For her latest work, Donnelly has just completed the third book of a trilogy:

The Tea Rose; The Winter Rose; and The Wild Rose. All books that are steeped with romance and historical events and places.

With  a strong educational background, Donnelly has extensively studied other writers, i.e., Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner, James Joyce.  From them, she has branched out and  learned her own way of narration, characterization, and pacing of the story. Most of her stories have non-fiction elements in the background.  From the Jack the Ripper to Chester Gillette, Donnelly digs deep into the psychological basis for her intriguing stories. 

Her books have been recommended across gender and type. Her love of language becomes apparent in her use of colloquialisms and idiomatic dialogue. Mystery, romance, history, and fascination--her work has been labeled "a ripping yarn."  Watch for more from Jennifer Donnelly.


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