Over Forty Writers Over Forty to Watch

Writing the title of this post actually felt very silly; it seems such an arbitrary way of gathering a list of writers to look out for. What could be sillier than singling out writers in this way, according to their age? Surely, there are more worthy criteria. Well, there is an answer to what could be sillier than singling out over forty writers over forty to watch, namely, singling twenty writers under forty to watch, especially largely mainstream writers writing, for the most part, conventional and redundant fiction. And the New Yorker has done just that. But this isn’t surprising. Theirs is an idea once again institutionalizing, reinforcing our decayed culture’s obsession with youth, not to mention its eyes wide shut wallowing in mediocrity. So, not only have they missed, for the most part, who are the best fiction writers under forty to watch, but, with their unapologetic valorization of youth, they missed entirely. The following writers (and I include poets, essayists, and theorists among them) are writers who have consistently written great work. I anticipate great things from each of them in the years and years to come. With full awareness of how a corrective sometimes ironically and paradoxically legitimizes what it seeks to correct, here, in the order in which I thought of them, are over forty writers over forty whose work I will be busy watching.

Lance Olsen: Head in Flames, this literary polymath’s most recent novel, is a wildly refractive narrative that oscillates between three divergent yet sometimes seductively interlinked consciousnesses. Stay tuned for my interview with Olsen at Rain Taxi: Review of Books.

Samuel Delany: I’m a massive fan of Delany. I have high expectations about his forthcoming novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders.

William Gass: Though Gass is far from what one would consider a prolific fiction writer, excerpts from his novel-in-progress Middle C have been quietly published in Conjunctions for the past few years. That said, Gass regularly contributes erudite essays on books that are marked by his singular lyrical style. Stay tuned for my interview with Gass somewhere.

Mary Caponegro: Caponegro has been writing amazingly intricate, evocative, and lyrical stories for decades now. As I’ve written elsewhere, her most recent collection

All Fall Down, probes the minds of an odd collection of characters: a couple whose marriage is headed toward dissolution; a man torn by conflicting allegiances to his wife and mother; two other lovers whose new relationship is ravaged by the onset of illness; a woman who just can’t seem to let her daughter go; children who, in a fantastic, disturbing turn, run an abortion clinic; and, lastly, a crusty, dispassionate academic. These are flawed people, raw like flensed skin, and, as in the case of the kids running the clinic, oddly neglected. They are selfish and unaware, or self-aware but uncaring, or hyper-aware yet still encumbered by their history, their territorializing, their devotions, their supposed obligations. While the characters in these stories have much to be glum about, Caponegro’s insistent lyricism, scathing humor, and remarkable precision always impresses, always reminds the reader of the possibilities of fiction as a vehicle for psychological exploration. Sure, many contemporary novels are promoted as “psychological,” but Caponegro, with a style equally indebted to Virginia Woolf and William Gass, distinguishes herself by ably capturing the psyche’s complexity, its unpredictability, its darkness, its disquieting mystery.

Stay tuned for my interview with Caponegro somewhere.

John Haskell: Haskell is definitely one of my favorite writers. Have you read I Am Not Jackson Pollock, American Purgatorio, or Out of My Skin, yet?

Out of My Skin is strange, moving, engrossing, and flows just like the cascading water the narrator had hoped his decision-making process resembled. Haskell’s novel is not merely symbols on a page, but is, like that tree he reflects on, a portal through which you can see whatever you want to see in the world; the book is, itself, a “necessary thing.”

I can’t wait for his next novel, purportedly the final novel in his trilogy.

Amy Hempel: It takes time to generate a gem, and each story from Hempel, while long in the making, always glistens; her wrenching lines and unerring, unwavering attention to human frailty, duplicity, rancor, and complexity make each of her stories a prized multi-faceted thing.

Ben Marcus: Fiercely original, Marcus’s books are odd languagey takes on dystopian fiction. I’ve read and loved all of his books and I can’t wait for his forthcoming novel, The Flame Alphabet.

Rae Armantrout: She’s the critic’s darling nowadays, but don’t let that deter you from exploring her spiky, turvied, disjunctive poetics. Why not start at the start with her crackly, rambunctious Extremities?

Robert Coover: Another literary giant, Coover’s recent novel Noir is spectacular. I reviewed it for The Brooklyn Rail. Here’s an excerpt:

Rendered in a tone full of deadpan humor and crepuscular musings, Noir has a lot to admire: a walking punching bag who, though seemingly down for the count, manages to beat the countdown time and again; brilliantly drawn sequences like the grisly “Case of the Severed Hand” (perhaps Coover’s offhand tribute to the phantom hand in Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, or simply a nod to the legendary Arthur Howard fraud case); a masterful juggling of jokes, violence, and mystery; weird Lynchian punctures of the veil between dreams and waking life, where, echoing Noir, I can’t always “be sure what was real and what wasn’t, though in a sense it was all real, because even if I was only imagining it, it was still real, at least in my own mind, the only one I’ve got”; and, as expected of Coover—one of a dying breed of virtuosic stylists—a knowing revivifying of genre tropes.

His mammoth sequel to his seminal The Origin of the Brunists will be published in the next year or so.

John Barth: The limelight is a wavering beam, and fame a capricious thing. Did you know that Barth was once a student of “Elementary Theory and Advanced Orchestration” at Julliard? It makes sense when you consider how musical a writer he is. I’m ashamed to admit how little I’ve read from him (a mere two novels and a collection of essays).

Carole Maso: Is there any living writer who writes more lyrically or sensuously? I doubt it. You can start with any of her books.

Brian Evenson: Incredibly prolific, Evenson is another giant. Reading one of his novels or stories is to fall not only into the heart of darkness but into the very darkness of darkness. As I’ve written elsewhere Evenson’s

work carefully navigates abundant, layered, cumulative sentences, sentences filled with recursive explorations, dynamic repetitions, and playful symmetries, with a kind of Spartan restraint on description and exposition, what Samuel Delany describes as “the stark economy of the tuned ear, the fixed eye.” There is nothing arbitrary in Evenson’s narratives, every detail is carefully chosen as if he were quietly building a bomb in some dark closet. This is not to say his stories are in any way mechanical but that every aspect works together so that it will explode in your hands at the intended time and place. And while the explicit potentialities are certainly interesting and gripping enough, it is the various subtexts, that is, the probing of murky psychologies, of spiraling contradictions, and its unresolved ends that keep me engaged.

Here’s an excerpt from my review of Fugue State, his most recent story collection:

Reading Fugue State you might just get dizzy from Evenson’s worrying whirligig of the possible and fall into your own dissociative state. And while you could easily say that these are gripping stories, it would be much more accurate to say that these stories put you in a headlock while giving you complexities to puzzle over, then knock you to the ground, and hold you there until, unconscious, you drift into some never ending nightmare.

Eugene Marten: His latest novel, Firework, is in my reading queue. But here are some thoughts about his previous work:

With its granitic sentences, measured, but not sluggish, pacing, and a heavy, but not burdensome, sense of foreboding, where the banality of the day-to-day workaday eccentricities of a troubled janitor’s lonely life is recorded with devastating precision, Eugene Marten’s novella Waste might easily have been called ‘Weight’ or ‘Wait.’ Marten’s taut prose—inventorying cleansers, receptacles, bags, containers, etc., as well as cleaning procedures and disposal methods—immediately sucks the reader into a high-rise building’s airless offices and cramped cubicles, underneath fluorescent light’s unforgiving glare, as the blare of internecine office politics, labor versus management gossip, Dictaphone clicks, the cold static of a television’s ‘three [sometimes four] snowy channels,’ and ‘the movement of air from the convectors, an occasional fax, noise from the street,’ rings in the ears.

Norman Lock: While the literary world sleeps, Lock, one of our preeminent dreamweavers, subversive carnies, and acoustic alchemists, awakes wide-eyed and unafraid to fashion fantastic objects of beauty. Shadowplay was one of last year’s highlights in reading for me. My review of it is forthcoming in The Review of Contemporary Fiction.

Michael Kimball: Michael Kimball’s The Way the Family Got Away is one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read, it’s

about everything that disappears, like what you used to call a dream, like so much sump. Here a family of four travels cross-country away from unfathomable loss toward somewhere they hope is filled with something else, anything but the pain of that loss. They travel away from Mineola, Texas toward Gaylord, Michigan, or, as the brother says, “away from where my brother was alive once and died there and toward the miles and the everything else that was going to happen to us everywhere else we went.” The boy thinks that they stop at the homes of other families so that they “could get some of their family away from them and keep going away,” as if the idea of family is a tangible thing, that the invisible bonds that make a family a family can be traded off and then used to keep another family together, to keep them going, keep them moving.

Yes, it’s one of the saddest stories I’d ever read, and another one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read is Kimball’s Dear Everybody. I reviewed it for Word Riot. Will somebody tell Ang Lee to turn it into a film already? I haven’t read How Much of Us There Was but will when it’s republished by Tyrant Books.

Gary Lutz: Another of literature’s unsung giants, Lutz is an inimitable prose stylist, for whom the sentence is not only a vehicle of and for sonic, textural, and rhetorical verve and flair, but also a container of anxiety, fear, pain, and sadness. His story collections (his most recent, Partial List of People to Bleach, was published a few years ago) are certainly ones this reader needs in the worst way. And “[i]t must be understood, however, that Lutz is not working with a ‘private’ language of indecipherability or inaccessibility. Instead Lutz, always looking alive, tinkers with word kernels, allowing them to suggest movement, direction, etc., careful to avoid the hackneyed, inexact, sentimental, and imbues every sentence with texture, with a kind of vividness and intelligence that imprints itself on one’s consciousness.” Whenever all of his fictions are gathered in a single omnibus they should called The Collected Frictions of Gary Lutz.

Ursula K. Le Guin: Some people may be surprised by my inclusion of Le Guin. Sometimes you just want a story, and Le Guin is a master of myth-infused storytelling. Lavinia, her most recent novel, was wonderful, and I never doubt that the forward momentum of her stories will sweep me away. Plus, I wrote my first fan letter to Le Guin. She wrote back.

Alan Moore: V for Vendetta, Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, etc. Plus, he’s an anarchist. I’ve been out of the comic book and graphic novel world for a long time, so forgive me for this seeming token inclusion.

Christine Schutt: Poetic, dark, sad, beautiful, angry, lyrical, alive, Schutt’s stories inspire awe, send me back to my own sorry sentences to tease them apart, torture them, only to find that they still don’t measure up.

Diane Williams: She gave and gives us NOON, one of the best literary journals, a kind of haven for writers with a minimalist bent. Moreover, she continues to write acerbic, witty, confounding prose of her own.

Dawn Raffel: Not sure why her latest collection Further Adventures in the Restless Universe isn’t on my reading queue. We’ll have to fix that.

Lydia Davis: Yes, everybody knows Davis, but sometimes it works out that the knowing is a knowing knowing.

Joan Didion: Ditto.

Eileen Myles: Yes, she’s punk rock. Apparently the word “punk” probably came from Delaware (Algonquian) ponk, literally “dust, powder, ashes”; so, yeah, Myles’s poems and essays burn everything up, reduce everything to ashes: poems as winnowing fire: the lit in literature.

John Ashbery: In a word: brilliant. In other words: complex, obtuse, confounding, parodic, disjunctive, playful, intelligent, humorous, difficult, inimitable, versatile, flexible. You can pretty much start anywhere with Ashbery, I think, though what I know most, if I know them at all, are the early books, namely, Some Trees, The Tennis Court Oath, Rivers and Mountains, The Double Dream of Spring, Three Poems, The Vermont Notebook, and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.

Rikki Ducornet: She’s another of those writers who I can’t believe aren’t more popular. Her stories are strange and beautiful and incredibly accessible, I would think.

Kim Chinquee: “Chinquee’s short shorts and prose poems are mercurial miniatures: they quickly shift from place to thought, image to dialogue.” Her latest collection is sitting on my shelf waiting for me to read it. What the heck is wrong with me?

Will Alexander: Michael Leong introduced me to his work here at Big Other. I obviously have a lot of catching up to do.

Thalia Field: Field is a writer of incredible flexibility fashioning complex, exploratory examinations of great durability. I’ve read three of her books including her most recent, Bird Lovers, Backyard, which is full genre-defying pieces. Stay tuned for my interview with her.

Ken Sparling: One day Sparling will get his due. Here’s a bit of something I wrote about his first book:

One of Sparling’s most impressive devices is his use of repetition. While seemingly banal and an apt metaphor for the narrator’s meaningless work, his going-through-the-motions life, this repetition of words and phrases, and its many interpolations, are akin to Gertrude Stein’s work, her obsessions. In “Portraits and Repetitions,” Gertrude Stein writes that “there can be no repetition because the essence of that expression is insistence, and if you insist you must each time use emphasis and if you use emphasis it is not possible while anybody is alive that they should use exactly the same emphasis.” Sparling’s insistence is often manifested in short, matter-of-fact statements like this, the novel’s opening sentence: “At night, I am home. And before I am even home, I am walking home.” And his sparkling repetitions are interleaved throughout Dad Says He Saw You at the Mall like when observes his wife’s “walking slow,” how a couple “looked happy,” and how he “only wanted to go to sleep, take everything with [him] to sleep, keep it there with [him], alone with [him] in sleep.” This spiraling insistence makes for mind-numbing yet still heart-piercing reading.

Haruki Murakami: Okay, okay, mainstream writer, yes, yes, but I’ve read almost everything he’s published and enjoyed every minute of it, and so I anticipate great things from him in the future.

Michael Martone: When Martone’s always forward-thinking, always several steps ahead, always inventive fiction is collected into a series of handsome leather-bound editions it will be called The Collected Puzzles of Michael Martone.

David Markson: Another giant. His last novel, The Last Novel, was published in 2007 so it’s right about time for something new from him. In the meantime, I really want to read his critical study of Malcolm Lowry.

Stephanie Strickland: I’d guess that she knows more than me and most people about digital media, hypertexts, etc. and how they intersect with poetics. Always inspiring.

Julia Kristeva: Her intelligence and her seemingly impenetrable prose are daunting, and her range and versatility (she writes philosophy, literary criticism, fiction, etc.) gives lie to the idea that a writer should specialize, an idea inculcated by cookie-cutter educational programs.

William Walsh: Surprising, fresh, inventive, Walsh is another writer who bubbles with ideas and then realizes them on the page. You never know what he’s going to come up with next. Check out his new book, Pathologies.

Ron Silliman: Another sparkling mind. Like Walt Whitman, Silliman considers each of his poems as being part of a single poem or lifework. His blog is a popular one-stop-shop for poetry and other literary news.

Alexander Theroux: One of the seeming diminishing number of maximalists, Theroux’s prose is smart, witty, and unapologetically baroque. Theroux, in an interview with Sean P. Carroll said that he’s

written a bunch of books, presently in boxes in ms. form but all complete: my two books on (non?) color, Black and White; The Grammar of Rock, an analysis of pop and rock and roll lyrics; Seacoast in Bohemia, a history of literary gaffes; Julia Chateauroux, the Girl With the Green Hair and Other Fables, my fable collection (18 of them); Artists Who Kill and Other Essays, my book of essays; Anomalies, a collection of ironic facts down through history (the ms. is 400 pages) and my Complete Poems (ca. 450 of them). I am working on two books, a novel, Herbert Head, Biography of a Poet, and a nonfiction book, Becoming Amelia, on Amelia Earhart. I need a MacArthur grant to work in peace. I am relatively insolvent.

Anne Carson: While immersed in the Classics, particularly Greek mythology, her work shouldn’t be confused for the cold statues collecting dust in your local museum, but regarded as vibrant, ebullient, inventive texts. I’d say start with Autobiography in Red: A Novel in Verse, a story about a red-winged monster living in modern times.

Annie Dillard: Are you feeling sick from the fakebooks and the shitty twitter chit chattering? Then please pick up Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I wrote about it a while ago and had forgotten about my little essay. I’ll post it here soon. Dillard is our Thoreau.

Joseph Young: “With their directness and precision, their attention to what Ezra Pound would call ‘luminous details,’ Joseph Young’s microfictions might be mistaken for Imagist poems, but with their shift away from showing ‘things’ as ‘things’ toward ‘things’ as something else, or, rather, toward portraying both the ‘thingness’ of the thing and of some different ‘thing,’ his miniatures suggest something altogether different. But where they fit is less important than what they do, how they make you feel. In Easter Rabbit’s miniatures, its sharp sentences focused on often mundane details, Young offers epics. Seemingly channeling William Blake, he offers further ‘auguries of innocence,’ further testaments to worlds in granules, heavens in flowers, and – well, suffice to say, these are sentences to linger over.”

Noy Holland: Another distinctive stylist, Holland’s stories are imaginative and brimming with lyricism.

Lyn Hejinian: Hejinian is an incredible poet whose work consistently dazzles. Her book of essays, The Language of Inquiry will blow your mind. Brian Kim Stefans sums up her work thus:

Hejinian is known, generally, for meditative, philosophical writing that recalls William James as filtered through Wittgenstein and Gertrude Stein. She can be quite autobiographical, however obliquely, and is often, like Proust, inspired into reverie by the objects of her life. Her longer poems, such as My Life and Oxota: A Short Russian Novel, subvert conventional genres such as the novel, the memoir, the poem and the essay.

Other writers over forty whose work is worth keeping out an eye for:

Can Xue, Ishmael Scott Reed, Patrik Ouředník, Percival Everrett, Steve Katz, Nathaniel Mackey, António Lobo Antunes, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Steve Tomasula, Juan Goytisolo, Alexandra Chasin, Stanley G. Crawford, Shelley Jackson, Anne Michaels, Gary Amdahl, and Michal Ajvaz.

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32 thoughts on “Over Forty Writers Over Forty to Watch

  1. Thank you John. As Enobarbus said in ‘Antony and Cleopatra':

    “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety. Other women cloy the appetites they feed, but she makes hungry where most she satisfies.”

    All these writers OVER 40 and more are our Cleopatras.

    • Hey Brian,

      Not sure what you mean. Disrupting scale, tact, and taste might actually merit being on my list, although I don’t see how this could apply to Kristeva.

    • Hmm, well, McSweeney’s quarterlies are beautiful objects filled with great writers writing (I’ve had subscriptions off and on), The Believer is an excellent magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency is smart and fun, and 826 Valencia is a noble project. That said, I’m not really familiar with Egger’s prose, hence his absence from my list.

      So what do you like about him?

  2. Excellent list, though of course I have a couple of additions:

    Russell Hoban, who has been turning out a steady stream of clever, perverse, intricate little novels for years now.

    Christopher Priest, author of The Affirmation and The Prestige which everybody should read, and whose work is becoming, if anything, more intricate and more rewarding.

    M. John Harrison, because he is one of the most careful crafters of words on a page that I have ever encountered.

    And is Steve Erickson over 40? I suspect he must be by now, in which case how can you possibly omit the author of Days Between Stations and Zeroville from this list?

    Actually it would not be hard to go on much longer. 400 writers over 40?

  3. Thanks, Paul.

    I know Hoban’s children’s books, so I haven’t given much thought to him.

    I haven’t read Priest, but I certainly enjoyed the film adaptation of The Prestige.

    I’m aware of Harrison, having read and enjoyed some stories from him.

    I don’t know Erickson at all, though.

    Thanks for the heads-up.

    And you’re right about how long this list could get. Compiling a list like this always increases my anxiety about how much there is from authors I love that I’d like to read and reread.

  4. Hoban has written far more adult books than children’s books now, I think. You need to check out Riddley Walker, which is probably the best thing he’s done, but the novels he’s written over the last decade or so are full of intersecting characters involved in art and sex, usually with an element of perversion. They may be an acquired taste, but I acquired it long ago.

    Priest: I have to declare an interest, he was my best man when I got married. But that aside I still think he is one of the best and most interesting writers in any genre of the last 30 or 40 years. His novels are full of reliable narrators in unreliable worlds, and the film of The Prestige, while capturing the spirit of the novel brilliantly, actually missed out on a lot of the complexity.

    Harrison is a staggeringly good short story writer, but novels like The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life are even better.

    Steve Erickson, LA journalist turned postmodern novelist. Tours of the Black Clock, my favourite, is about the secret room that contains the soul of the 20th century; Leap Year is a journalistic account of the 1988 presidential election that features the ghost of Sally Hemings. Ah, I could go on, I’ve been addicted to his stuff since I first discovered him.

    And that reminds me I didn’t actually note any women writers, which is silly because there are so many good ones out there. Karen Joy Fowler (look out for Sarah Canary), Greer Gilman (Cloud and Ashes), Gwyneth Jones (Life), and so on.

    Seriously, how many currently active novelists over 40 do you think we could name that are worth reading?

    • Ah, Riddley Walker. I remember flipping through that one and loving the language element of that. I’d meant to return to it.

      I know you have a lot of plates spinning, but I’d love to see a survey from you of novels where the language is foregrounded in ways similar to Riddley Walker, A Clockwork Orange, and Native Tongue; and also exploring Tolkien’s predilection for creating languages, etc.

      • In that case, Gene Wolfe would need to be in there for the use of language in he Book of the New Sun.

        Ah, Gene Wolfe, another writer well the other side of 40 (though to be honest his last three or four novels have been well below par).

        You’re right, I’m trying to keep rather too many plates spinning at the moment (including several long posts for Big Other, and I’m getting frustrated at not having the chance to get to work on them). But then, I did write something on this precise subject a few years ago, which might be worth digging out and posting here. I’ll look it out.

  5. M John Harrison’s The Course of the Heart is one of my all-time favourite novels; I also share with Paul the unconditional the love for Russell Hoban, everything from The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz onwards (though I haven’t read the children’s books)
    I would also add at least John Crowley and Alan Garner to the number of great old men of the “literary fantastic” (for lack of a better phrase).
    A Very Strong Yes to Karen Joy Fowler and Gwyneth Jones. And Kelly Link.

    It’s strange that you don’t know Erickson at all, John – he’s a writer Evenson much admires:
    http://www.believermag.com/issues/200306/?read=article_evenson

    But, yeah, there are so many good authors writing in various “genres” or getting lost in the interstices between definitions – not to mention all those writing in languages other than English, of which only a small number manages to be translated regularly …

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  7. working on something about tomasula down the road. for now, to all, check out TOC, a new media novel, and VAS: An Opera in Flatland.

  8. I’d sneak Peter Markus in there as well – the brothers’ stories that are in his two Calamari collections, plus NMP chapbook, his novel Bob (okay, personal interest as Dzanc published it – but to be honest that’s because I loved that earlier work and followed up on it as a publisher), and a full story collection coming out in the spring from Dzanc (again).

    Plenty of his stuff to find online related to the two brothers, their dirty river town full of mud, and fish and the moon, etc.

  9. great author roundabout. thanks for the post!

    i also returned to the New Yorker issue, and found that the editorial introduction and the live chat was rather interesting to read – hadn’t realized that this “20 under 40″ issue was a follow-up of an issue of an earlier decade. (“Last winter, when we came up with the plan to devote this issue to young fiction writers who we believe are, or will be, key to their generation, we took a look at a similar issue that we published, in 1999, titled “The Future of American Fiction.” Back then, we had to decide how we were going to decide..”)

    while looking through the author list of the current issue, i noticed something the editors didn’t highlight: the list has an exact 10:10 ration of female and male authors.

    and another surprise: 7 of the 20 authors are non-native.
    which made me think of the current editorial of Asian Cha on writing in a second language. i now put together some notes, quotes, links, and also a link to this post, in the blueprintrveview blog: http://just1m.blogspot.com/2010/06/2nd-language-authors.html

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  11. The splendid Steve Erickson — he’ll forgive me for spilling the beans, though it may take another 40 years — is well over the minimum age.

    Otherwise, kudos on a fine list. I have names I could add, sure. How about Jay Cantor, author THE DEATH OF CHE GUEVARA, in particular?

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