Literature and life



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Contemporary American literature[edit]


Though its exact parameters remain debatable, from the early 1970s to the present day the most salient literary movement has been postmodernism. Thomas Pynchon, a seminal practitioner of the form, drew in his work on modernist fixtures such as temporal distortion, unreliable narrators, and internal monologue and coupled them with distinctly postmodern techniques such as metafiction, ideogrammatic characterization, unrealistic names (Oedipa Maas, Benny Profane, etc.), absurdist plot elements and hyperbolic humor, deliberate use of anachronisms and archaisms, a strong focus on postcolonial themes, and a subversive commingling of high and low culture. In 1973, he publishedGravity's Rainbow, a leading work in this genre, which won the National Book Award and was unanimously nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction that year. His other major works include his debut, V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Mason & Dixon (1997), and Against the Day (2006).

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Toni Morrison at the Miami Book Fair International of 1986

Toni Morrison, the most recent American recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, writing in a distinctive lyrical prose style, published her controversial debut novelThe Bluest Eye, to widespread critical acclaim in 1970. Coming on the heels of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, the novel, widely studied in American schools, includes an elaborate description of incestuous rape and explores the conventions of beauty established by a historically racist society, painting a portrait of a self-immolating black family in search of beauty in whiteness. Since then, Morrison has experimented with lyric fantasy, as in her two best-known later works, Song of Solomon (1977) and Beloved (1987), for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; along these lines, critic Harold Bloom has drawn favorable comparisons to Virginia Woolf,[14] and the Nobel committee to "Faulkner and to the Latin American tradition [of magical realism]."[15] Beloved was chosen in a 2006 survey conducted by the New York Times as the most important work of fiction of the last 25 years.[16]

Writing in a lyrical, flowing style that eschews excessive use of the comma and semicolon, recalling William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingwayin equal measure, Cormac McCarthy's body of work seizes on the literary traditions of several regions of the United States and spans multiple genres. He writes in the Southern Gothic aesthetic in his distinctly Faulknerian 1965 debut, The Orchard Keeper, and Suttree (1979); in the Epic Western tradition, with grotesquely drawn characters and symbolic narrative turns reminiscent of Melville, in Blood Meridian (1985), which Harold Bloom styled "the greatest single book since Faulkner’sAs I Lay Dying," calling the character of Judge Holden "short of Moby Dick, the most monstrous apparition in all of American literature";[17] in a much more pastoral tone in his celebrated Border Trilogy (1992–98) of bildungsromans, including All the Pretty Horses (1992), winner of the National Book Award; and in the post-apocalyptic genre in the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road (2007). His novels are noted for achieving both commercial and critical success, several of his works having been adapted to film.

Don DeLillo, who rose to literary prominence with the publication of his 1985 novel, White Noise, a work broaching the subjects of death and consumerism and doubling as a piece of comic social criticism, began his writing career in 1971 with Americana. He is listed by Harold Bloom as being among the preeminent contemporary American writers, in the company of such figures as Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, and Thomas Pynchon.[18] His 1997 novel Underworld, a gargantuan work chronicling American life through and immediately after the Cold War and examining with equal depth subjects as various as baseball and nuclear weapons, is generally agreed upon to be his masterpiece and was the runner-up in a survey asking writers to identify the most important work of fiction of the last 25 years.[16] Among his other important novels are Libra (1988), Mao II (1991) andFalling Man (2007).

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Jonathan Franzen at the 2008 Brooklyn Book Festival.

Seizing on the distinctly postmodern techniques of digression, narrative fragmentation and elaborate symbolism, and strongly influenced by the works of Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace began his writing career with The Broom of the System, published to moderate acclaim in 1987. His second novel, Infinite Jest (1997), a futuristic portrait of America and a playful critique of the media-saturated nature of American life, has been consistently ranked among the most important works of the 20th century,[19] and his final novel, unfinished at the time of his death, The Pale King (2011), has garnered much praise and attention. In addition to his novels, he also authored three acclaimed short story collections: Girl with Curious Hair (1989), Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999) and Oblivion: Stories (2004).

Jonathan Franzen, Wallace's friend and contemporary, rose to prominence after the 2001 publication of his National Book Award-winning third novel, The Corrections. He began his writing career in 1988 with the well-received The Twenty-Seventh City, a novel centering on his native St. Louis, but did not gain national attention until the publication of his essay, "Perchance to Dream," in Harper's Magazine, discussing the cultural role of the writer in the new millennium through the prism of his own frustrations. The Corrections, a tragicomedy about the disintegrating Lambert family, has been called "the literary phenomenon of [its] decade"[20] and was ranked as one of the greatest novels of the past century.[19]In 2010, he published Freedom to great critical acclaim.[20][21][22]

Other notable writers at the turn of the century include Michael Chabon, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay(2000) tells the story of two friends, Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, as they rise through the ranks of the comics industry in its heyday; Denis Johnson, whose 2007 novel Tree of Smoke about falsified intelligence during Vietnam both won the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was called by critic Michiko Kakutani"one of the classic works of literature produced by [the Vietnam War]";[23] and Louise Erdrich, whose 2008 novel The Plague of Doves, a distinctly Faulknerian, polyphonic examination of the tribal experience set against the backdrop of murder in the fictional town of Pluto, North Dakota, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and her 2012 novel The Round House, which builds on the same themes, was awarded the 2012 National Book Award.[24]

Minority literatures[edit]


One of the key developments in late-20th-century American literature was the rise to prominence of literature written by and about ethnic minorities beyond African Americans and Jewish Americans, who had already established their literary inheritances. This development came alongside the growth of the Civil Rights movements and its corollary, the Ethnic Pride movement, which led to the creation of Ethnic Studies programs in most major universities. These programs helped establish the new ethnic literature as worthy objects of academic study, alongside such other new areas of literary study as women's literature, gay and lesbian literature, working-class literature, postcolonial literature, and the rise of literary theory as a key component of academic literary study.

After being relegated to cookbooks and autobiographies for most of the 20th century, Asian American literature achieved widespread notice through Maxine Hong Kingston's fictional memoir, The Woman Warrior (1976), and her novels China Men (1980) and Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book. Chinese-American author Ha Jin in 1999 won theNational Book Award for his second novel, Waiting, about a Chinese soldier in the Revolutionary Army who has to wait 18 years to divorce his wife for another woman, all the while having to worry about persecution for his protracted affair, and twice won the PEN/Faulkner Award, in 2000 for Waiting and in 2005 for War Trash.

Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her debut collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), and went on to write a well-received novelThe Namesake (2003), which was shortly adapted to film in 2007. In her second collection of stories, Unaccustomed Earth, released to widespread commercial and critical success, Lahiri shifts focus and treats the experiences of the second and third generation.

Other notable Asian-American (but not immigrant) novelists include Amy Tan, best known for her novel, The Joy Luck Club (1989), tracing the lives of four immigrant families brought together by the game of Mahjong, and Korean American novelist Chang-Rae Lee, who has published Native SpeakerA Gesture Life, and Aloft. Such poets as Marilyn Chin and Li-Young Lee, Kimiko Hahn and Janice Mirikitani have also achieved prominence, as has playwright David Henry Hwang. Equally important has been the effort to recover earlier Asian American authors, started by Frank Chin and his colleagues; this effort has brought Sui Sin Far, Toshio Mori, Carlos Bulosan, John Okada, Hisaye Yamamoto and others to prominence.

Latina/o literature also became important during this period, starting with acclaimed novels by Tomás Rivera (...y no se lo tragó la tierra) and Rudolfo Anaya (Bless Me, Ultima), and the emergence of Chicano theater with Luis Valdez and Teatro Campesino. Latina writing became important thanks to authors such as Sandra Cisneros, an icon of an emerging Chicano literature whose 1984 bildungsroman The House on Mango Street is taught in schools across the United States, Denise Chavez's The Last of the Menu Girlsand Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza.

Dominican-American author Junot Díaz, received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his 2007 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which tells the story of an overweight Dominican boy growing up as a social outcast in Paterson, New Jersey. Another Dominican author, Julia Alvarez, is well known for How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies. Cuban American author Oscar Hijuelos won a Pulitzer for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, and Cristina García received acclaim for Dreaming in Cuban.

Celebrated Puerto Rican novelists who write in English and Spanish include Giannina Braschi, author of the Spanglish classic Yo-Yo Boing! and Rosario Ferré, best known for "Eccentric Neighborhoods"[25][26] Puerto Rico has also produced important playwrights such as René Marqués, Luis Rafael Sánchez, and José Rivera and New York based poets such as Julia de Burgos, Giannina Braschi and Pedro Pietri, as well as various members of the Nuyorican Poets Café.[26]

Spurred by the success of N. Scott Momaday's Pulitzer Prize–winning House Made of Dawn, Native American literature showed explosive growth during this period, known as theNative American Renaissance, through such novelists as Leslie Marmon Silko (e.g., Ceremony), Gerald Vizenor (e.g., Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles and numerous essays on Native American literature), Louise Erdrich (Love Medicine and several other novels that use a recurring set of characters and locations in the manner of William Faulkner),James Welch (e.g., Winter in the Blood), Sherman Alexie (e.g., The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven), and poets Simon Ortiz and Joy Harjo. The success of these authors has brought renewed attention to earlier generations, including Zitkala-Sa, John Joseph Mathews, D'Arcy McNickle and Mourning Dove.



More recently, Arab American literature, largely unnoticed since the New York Pen League of the 1920s, has become more prominent through the work of Diana Abu-Jaber, whose novels include Arabian Jazz and Crescent and the memoir The Language of Baklava. Other important authors include Etel Adnan and poet Naomi Shihab Nye.

Nobel Prize in Literature winners (American authors)[edit]




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