Who are the most important writers of our generation?
In my current S&R Honors tribute to William Gibson I say that I think he’s the most important author of the past 30 years, and I acknowledge that this is certainly something of a mouthful. I’ve been gratified by the comments, both here and over at io9, where the post was linked by Charlie Jane Anders. It’s great to make a point, and even better when you can spark some really intelligent commentary from people who know what they’re talking about.
One such comment at io9 came from Spaceknight, and it struck me as something I probably should address.
I would be curious who he would put on the shortlist of close competition for that position. King? Gaiman? Rowling? other ideas?
That is more than a fair question. To these three specifically:
- King is a prominent writer, but he’s hardly important in the same way that Gibson is. Prolific, yes. But socially and culturally influential, no.
- Rowling frankly isn’t a great writer per se. A writer with a great concept, a decent craftswoman, and somebody with a knack for captivating a certain audience (and I’m part of that audience), for sure. She does get credit for promoting reading to kids – in fact, making books cool again is surely her greatest accomplishment, and it’s a worthy one. So in that respect, she is absolutely important. In fact, she’s more important than she is good.
- Gaiman is a fantastic writer, and American Gods deserves every morsel of critical acclaim it got. And yeah, Good Omens, co-authored with the equally wonderful Terry Pratchett, is maybe the funniest book I ever read. But again, there’s a difference between being a good writer, even a great writer, and being a culturally important one. I’m not sure I can see that Gaiman’s work has changed the world.
So, how would I answer Spaceknight’s question? I’d begin with some caveats. First, I guess I’m only talking about English language writers. Second, I’ve hardly read all I’d need to read to speak with ultimate authority on the question (lending credibility to those who might accuse me of talking out of my ass). I read a lot, but I’m like everybody else alive in this day and age: for every great book I read, there are probably 100 that I don’t have time to get to. Third, his alternate suggestions indicate that he’s thinking within an SF/Fantasy frame, but I’m thinking beyond that and am concerned about great writers period.
These things given, here are some writers I might nominate for the discussion. And remember, we’re talking roughly last 30 years, so since Reagan took office (how’s that for a cultural watershed?) and since the first Gen Xers (that would include me) graduated from high school.
Cormac McCarthy. I need to read the rest of his work, but sweet holy hell, if all he ever wrote was Blood Meridian he’d deserve a place in the conversation. That, quite simply, is one of the remarkable accomplishments I have ever encountered in literature of any genre, and it’s important because of the way he simply annihilated our expectations about the possibility and requisites of language in period pieces. I have no idea how he managed it, but the world of being a serious novelist changed the day that novel hit the stands.
Salman Rushdie. Has anyone ever written a work of fiction that incited such insane levels of real world controversy and violence? The legacy of The Satanic Verses lives on today, as fundamentalist Islam has now assumed the right to kill anyone who engages in creative activity that it deems offensive.
Charles Wright. I’ve long held that Wright is our greatest living poet (although he certainly isn’t our only great one). From where I stand, Wright’s singular achievement is that he has insisted on the magical, mystical power of language in an era where everyone else seems hellbent on leveling poetry to death. Banal and one-dimensional, pedestrian and simplistic, contemporary poetry lacks depth and complexity and the sorts of richness we associate with the masters of past eras. Instead of writing something legitimately powerful and evocative, too many poets today write something butt-simple and not even vaguely interesting and then they rely on the ideology of the day to dare anyone to suggest that it isn’t every bit as good as anything Eliot ever wrote. Well, folks, it sucks. And Wright is one of the few poets who seems to grasp the need for poetry to aim higher.
Neal Stephenson. If I were to include someone else from the SF/Fantasy world it would have to be Stephenson, who is almost an alternate Gibson in some ways. Gibson helped blaze the trail that Snow Crash clearly followed, and then as WG was figuring out that he needed to abandon SF proper for SpecFic, Stephenson took the lead. The Baroque Trilogy manages to be historical fiction, sort of, that’s almost SF in some important ways. Then Anathem comes along and finds a way to meld Medievalism with Quantum Mechanics. He really is stunning. I enjoyed his foray into straight genre, REAMDE, but I hope he’s back to the mind-bending stuff soon.
And one more, for purposes of raising an interesting question.
Mark Danielewski. Maybe, in time? His full-frontal assault on narrative form in House of Leaves was gripping (and the fact that he wrapped a nerve-jangling tale around it also counts for something). Another thing that struck me was how his formal tactics lent themselves to other types of lit. Specifically, HoL was central to the approach I used in Archipelago, my long poem (published a couple of years ago in Uncanny Valley). It’s part poem, part drama, part blog, part found e-mail, part photography, part obituary notice, and I simply could not have gotten there without Danielewski. None of this changes the world, I don’t suppose, but the implications for literature are certainly interesting. Let’s check back in a couple more books and see where he is.
So there. Some ideas, and if I think about it some more I might be back with other to consider. In the meantime, let’s hear from our readers. Who do you regard as the most important writers of our generation?