10 (okay, 11) for the new millennium**

OK, first there’s this:

1)   Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai (2000)
2)   Kelly Link, Stranger Things Happen: Stories (2001)
3)   Andrea Lee, Interesting Women: Stories (2002)
4)   Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004)
5)   Poppy Z. Brite, Liquor (2004)
6)   Karen Joy Fowler, The Jane Austen Book Club (2004)
7)   Sigrid Nunez, The Last of Her Kind (2005)
8)   Lydia Davis, Varieties of Disturbance: Stories (2007)
9)   Toni Morrison, A Mercy (2008)
10) Karen Tei Yamashita, I, Hotel (2010)
11)  Susan Straight, Between Heaven and Here*** (2012)

Every now and then, because I read contemporary American fiction, I have to suffer through complaints that it just isn’t that good, usually from people who should know better. Lit scholars, well-read friends, and culture hounds all yearn for the Olden Days when American literature Stood For Something, or wasn’t so “hard to read,” or “so concerned with minutiae and ticky-tack things that don’t matter in the end.” I know at least two twentysomethings who more-or-less refuse to read anything written after the year they were born. Lots more—twentysomethings and older—stick to the classics. Some break out in hives at the mention of Jonathan Franzen or Dave Eggers, as if those guys have Ebola and as if that’s all there is, anyway.

All of which got me thinking: Why are people so afraid of what’s in their own backyards?

Well, maybe that’s the problem—it’s their own backyard. An example: We can love and lionize Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000)—a mercilessly funny riff on modern life, race, ethnicity, and men/women relations—precisely because it’s in England. It’s not lacerating us, directly, even if most of it does have direct parallels with us, and uses for us, too. White Teeth doesn’t make us confront ourselves, exactly, or the “others” in our midst. It’s awesome and satirical and painful but it’s separated from us by the Atlantic Ocean. At least, that’s what we’d like to believe.

Or, maybe, it’s just people don’t actually know the range nor scope of what’s in their backyards. So, I made a little list—in order of first publication—of what I think is among the best American fiction published since 2000. That is what’s above.

Now, that’s a pretty wide range of genres, writing styles, perspectives, and themes. It’s a mix of short story collections and novels. I intentionally left out poetry, drama, and comics—all of which are in fine shape, too, thankyouverymuch—though Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard (2006) and Domestic Work (2000) are essential poetry volumes. There’s a whole lot about race, from white and nonwhite writers alike, because America is a whole lot about race. But race is hardly all there is here.

To wit: There’s high experimentalism (Varieties of Disturbance), complete with shifting points-of-view and large chunks in untranslated Greek and Japanese (The Last Samurai). There are fractured fairy tales and terrifying reimagined myths as feminist folktales (Stranger Things Happen). There are elegant, smooth textures that get undercut by a persistent shard of jagged glass (Interesting Women). There’s straightforward realism (Gilead), slightly cracked and cagey realism (A Mercy; Between Heaven and Here), and slapstick revolutionary comedy that’s also realism (I, Hotel). There’s sweeping American history and broad political movements (The Last of Her Kind). There’s even a romantic novel written in the first-person plural (The Jane Austen Book Club), and another romance—this time comic and pulpy, with gay men and great food (Liquor).

All of which is to say that contemporary American fiction is vibrant, rich, varied, juicy, and absolutely vital. This list gears obviously toward my tastes. It’s not a final say, it’s not even a “best of,” but rather a starter course that offers a sense of the breadth and depth of today’s literature from the U.S.A.

Look, if you don’t like at least two of these books, I agree that you probably won’t like contemporary American fiction. That’s fine, I suppose. Just recognize that the problem isn’t American literature—it’s you.

_______________________
** Or, “How I learned to stop worrying and love new American fiction”
*** Because “top 10” lists are arbitrary

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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3 Responses to 10 (okay, 11) for the new millennium**

  1. Andrew Hidas says:

    Walter, having read but one from your list here—”Gilead”—which I found enchanting and profound and a fine candidate for the “If you could have only one book on a desert island” test, I am halfway to your minimum to prove I’m not the problem regarding my relationship to contemporary American fiction. So in order to increase my chances for completing the deal, which of the other 10 on your list would, in your estimation, a person enraptured with “Gilead” also find simpatico? Maybe the Morrison? Fowler?
    And Happy New Year!

    • Andrew, good to hear from you, as always. Robinson is a marvel, and anything else she’s published would be grand, especially her newly published LILA. As for my rinky-dink list, try Straight. BETWEEN HEAVEN AND HERE is more formally difficult than GILEAD–it shifts perspectives and timelines a lot–but it’s deeply rewarding & emotionally honest if you stick with it. Straight’s novel, as with Robinson’s, is part of a loose trilogy, so there’s more of Straight’s Rio Seca community to find if you like this one.

  2. Yes, Yes, Yes! , Eleven times, yes! Happy New Year, Walter Biggins!

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