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A David Bowie of Literature?

Is there a David Bowie of literature?—such an asinine question, as dumb as asking, “Is there a Virginia Woolf of music?”—arguing against it arguably as asinine as answering it at all, even on its own terms, which is to say, which “David Bowie”? which “literature”?; not to mention the problem of even locating a “there” with any kind of certainty, and of establishing what and/or where or whatever “Is” in this case is.

Let’s consider the problem as Warner grossly states it: “I began to wonder if we have a Bowie analogue when it comes to literature, a writer who consistently changes shape, each book different than the last.” The problem is faulty in numerous ways: Bowie certainly changed shape, but the changes were sometimes abrupt, sometimes gradual, sometimes subtle, sometimes indiscernible, those changes sometimes exploding forms, sometimes fusing existing ones, and there were moments of usually productive continuity, mining of a territory, deepening of a collaboration. Moreover, his albums aren’t always dramatically different from each other in either direction. This hardly diminishes Bowie’s accomplishments; instead, it further complicates them. Casting the narrowest of nets: what immediately “leapt to mind,” personal bookshelf-gazing, Twitter’s chitter-chatter, etc.; Warner comes up short, and the results are predictable.

Enough. Below I submit a few contemporary writers, whose work continually changes shape, whether book by book, or series of books within their oeuvre, whose work continually interrogates notions of form, genre, style, etc., whose work, like Bowie’s, however uncertain a comparison, continually changes shape, the changes sometimes abrupt, sometimes gradual, sometimes subtle, sometimes indiscernible, sometimes exploding forms, sometimes fusing existing ones, with moments of productive continuity, mining of a territory, deepening of a collaboration.

Will Alexander

Nicholson Baker

Gabriel Blackwell

Anne Carson

J.M. Coetzee

Robert Coover

Samuel Delany

Don DeLillo

Helen DeWitt

Brian Evenson

Percival Everett

Thalia Field

Forrest Gander

William Gass

Lily Hoang

Lance Olsen

Joyelle McSweeney

Nathaniel Mackey

Michael Martone

Vanessa Place

Rosmarie Waldrop

My list is by no means definitive, and likely comes up short. Please feel free to add to it in the comments below.

Update (January 24, 2016): Some others that ought to be included:

Jeremy M. Davies

Eugene Lim

Norman Lock

Michelin Aharonian Marcom

Davis Schneiderman

Robert Steiner

Curtis White

Zadie Smith

Update (January 25, 2016):

John Barth

Shelley Jackson

Anne Michaels

Richard Powers

William T. Vollmann

  • John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

13 thoughts on “A David Bowie of Literature?

    1. Don DeLillo, Will Self for me–the others I hate to admit I am not familiar with but will check some of them out. Right now I am in the midst of apartment issues and planning to move across country so other things on my mind!

  1. John Yau…Laura Mullen…there’s Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ series of “interstitial” books…

      1. I have a copy of Complicated Grief on my shelf in my office–I’m really looking forward to getting a chance to sit down and read it. I reviewed (very positively) Dark Archive and Enduring Freedom: A Little Book of Mechanical Brides so I’m sure I won’t be disappointed.

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