A Perhaps-Belated Response to Harold Bloom

by sentimentalsurrealist

So here’s how I’m going to do this. I don’t plan to waste too much time talking about the decreasing relevance of Harold Bloom re: literary criticism, nor am I going to spend all that long picking him apart for his wrongheaded appraisal of David Foster Wallace. If you’re a literary person, you probably know these things already. My focus today will instead be on a remark he made several years ago, where he named Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo the four greatest living authors in contemporary fiction.

Now, I have a hard time faulting his choices. Granted, I’m not huge into Roth, although I quite liked American Pastoral. There also exists the possibility that the once-mighty DeLillo is past his prime: I’ll have to read Point Omega and get back to you, although I quite enjoyed Cosmopolis. Pynchon and McCarthy are pretty much unimpeachable writers, so I’ll just leave that there. Instead, I’d like to offer an alternative view of the four best living authors of contemporary American fiction. To make it a little bit more interesting, I’ve also decided not to use any of the authors Bloom mentioned. Without further ado, here are the four.

Toni Morrison

She strikes me as a no-brainer, given that her name is more or less synonymous with contemporary fiction, and I think Bloom should feel bad about himself for not including her. I haven’t read a ton of her more recent work, but the early-to-mid quartet of the Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and especially the riveting Beloved is the sort of legacy-building run most authors would probably envy. She writes with a terrific combination of humor, horror and humanity, often switching from one to the other to the third in a single chapter, and she has a lot to say not just about the African-American experience, but the American experience in general. Definitely an author you should be reading if you’ve somehow or other missed the boat.

For starters: Song of Solomon

Adam Levin

A young upstart who, if you take it from me, has the potential to really go places. He’s already been places, as anyone who’s read his massive 2010 novel the Instructions can attest to: it reveals an ambition not seen in American fiction since the late David Foster Wallace put out Infinite Jest, combining unique slang, humor, terrifying violence, a complex sort of tonal ambivalence, and believable characters in unbelievable situations. His collection Hot Pink (2012) works according to similar principles, with a few of the stories foreshadowing the Instructions. Keep an eye on him.

For starters: Hot Pink

Junot Diaz

He made a big splash with the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, notable for its extensive footnotes, its pop culture references, and its use of Dominican history. It’s postmodern to the core, which might bother some readers, but it’s far more optimistic than the cynical, paranoid works of Pynchon or DeLillo. I haven’t read as many of his short stories as I should, but the first novel was a gripping read, welding personal and political history into a unique, exhilarating, and ultimately life-affirming whole. And he was technically born in the Dominican Republic, but don’t you figure there’s room for the immigrant narrative here?

For starters: the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Lydia Davis

Combining Barthelme’s experimental approach with – you guessed it – David Foster Wallace’s eye for detail, and adding a reporter’s tone of her own, Davis writes these brief sketches of seemingly mundane life that always reveal themselves to be out of the ordinary. While she’s written a novel, her specialty is short fiction, and she fits well in line with the recent flash trends, using every word in a thorough and devastating manner. For as quiet as her short stories are, they sure do leave their marks. Some of her briefer pieces blur the line between short stories and poems.

For starters: Varieties of Disturbance

Honorable Mention: William H. Gass

Gass has been around since the first wave of postmodernism, and while he hasn’t quite written a book that affected me to the same degree as these other authors have, he’s still a major contemporary voice, still putting out fiction at 89: his most recent work, Middle C, came out last year. Gass’ novels are categorized by scatological humor, dense prose, heavy philosophy, and the decentralization of character, which means they’re not for everyone, but if any of that appeals to you, he’s a major talent.

For starters: Omensetter’s Luck