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Top 5 Living American Novelists

Updated on February 23, 2012

Who's to say?

It's easy enough to figure out the best writers from the past. All you have to do is pick up a literature anthology. The agreed-upon "classic" writers don't change very often: students today are reading most of the same authors that students read fifty years ago. The last names of famous writers are familiar, and are spoken of with a reverence: Shakespeare. Hemingway. Bronte. Salinger. Eliot. Say them softly aloud: even their names are little poems.

But there are so many excellent authors active today that a reader of substantial literature might not know where to begin. In the Internet age, with a limited time to get through actual novels, readers often wonder if the authors they are reading are the important ones, the profound ones, the ones who will be studied a hundred years from now. Without a crystal ball, there's no way to really know; and yet, the following five authors, who have produced a sustained, substantial body of literature and received critical attention for it, are probably good bets. If you want to make sure that you have at least sampled the most important contemporary American novelists, spend the next few months making your way through a book by each of them.

5. Philip Roth

This controversial exile from Newark, New Jersey has been a key figure on the American literary stage for over fifty years. His debut, Goodbye, Columbus, was published in 1959. A novella plus five stories, Goodbye, Columbus was well received as an honest, well-crafted collection by a brash, fresh voice. It also led to the first of many controversies in Roth's career as American Jewish groups were angry at the depiction of Jews in the story "Defender of the Faith." Roth's satirical impulses led him into another controversy in 1967 as the novel Portnoy's Complaint was deemed obscene, too rich in details about masturbation for many readers even in the radical late sixties. Roth persevered through a messy public divorce and has continued to produce some of the richest, most substantial fiction of any American writer, often relying on the character of Nathan Zuckerman, his alter-ego, to catalyze his storytelling. Unlike the vast majority of writers who are recognized primarily for their early efforts, Roth has produced some of his finest work later in life. Once a public figure, Roth has become nearly a recluse, living on a farm in Connecticut, dedicated to the craft of writing fiction with no distractions. Recommended: American Pastoral.

4. Joyce Carol Oates

It is quite possible that Joyce Carol Oates is not only the most prolific American author of our time, but that she is the most prolific American author of all time. Adept at essays, short stories, and novels, Oates has always stunned the reading public with her ability to produce. Of course, writing a lot isn't the same thing as writing well, but critics tend to agree that Oates manages to do both. Her themes are varied, as are her methods, but one consistent motif is a fairly typical one for contemporary writers: the threat of madness or violence that exists just under the surface of typical American life. Oates renders this motif with as many questions as answers, and readers are likely to puzzle over her characters and imagery long after putting down one of her many, many books. Recommended: We Were the Mulvaneys.

Joyce Carol Oates

3. Richard Ford

With an uncanny ability to make fiction feel like autobiography, Richard Ford has developed into one of America's finest authors. Ford began as a sportswriter (which served as the inspiration for his novel titled, not surprisingly, The Sportswriter) and decided, after that job was terminated, to return to short stories. He didn't linger on that genre for long, despite the success of his collection Rock Springs, but moved on to the novel form. The trilogy that begins with The Sportswriter (followed by Independence Day and The Lay of the Land) features the narrator Frank Bascombe, perhaps the most memorable modern American character next to Roth's Zuckerman and John Updike's Harry Angstrom. Ford writes with an uncommon fineness and grace that make his stories not a whit larger or narrower in scope than life itself. Recommended: Independence Day.

2. Cormac McCarthy

It will be difficult to place McCarthy into any category, once categories of contemporary fiction have been firmly established. A writer who is certainly unpredictable, McCarthy belongs to a long tradition of American literary renegades like Henry David Thoreau (but less intellectual), Mark Twain (but less funny), or Jack Kerouac (but less exuberant). McCarthy stares the horror of existence in the face and refuses to flinch. His readers may find themselves flinching from time to time at the rawness of McCarthy's vision, but his writing -- tough and clear -- is stunning. Recommended: The Road.

1. Toni Morrison

The only living American novelist to have been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature (in 1993), Morrison is a tremendously talented, challenging, and important writer. She arrived on the literary scene in 1970 with the publication of The Bluest Eye and produced two other novels that decade, Sula and Song of Solomon, that established her as a major, profound voice who had a crucial perspective on the African American experience as well as an intricate style often compared to her great modernist predecessors Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner (who were the subjects of her master's thesis). She published her undisputed masterpiece, Beloved, in 1987. Based on the true story of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who murders her daughter rather than allowing her to return to slavery, Beloved is profound, disturbing, redemptive, and moving. Certainly not a prolific author like Roth or Oates, Morrison continues to write patiently and carefully. Everything she has written is worth reading, and rereading, and rereading again. But Beloved remains her greatest, and the greatest American novel perhaps of all time, shoulder-to-shoulder with Moby-Dick, The Great Gatsby, and Invisible Man. Recommended: Beloved.

The Test of Time

I've been teaching literature for over twenty years to college students. When I ask them to define how we know literature from the past is still "great," they invariably say that it has withstood "the test of time." Readers, in other words, have continued to find something useful in it, whether that means that it speaks to them, that it defines issues that remain relevant to their lives, that it depicts its surroundings in a way that invites us in, or that it hasn't gone stale. But great literature must always begin, as Henry James argued, with the quality of the mind that produced it, and continue with the ability of that author to observe the details of life that may go unnoticed, and finally to articulate those details as no one else can. The five authors above may in fact not withstand the test of time, despite their accolades during our time. (Note that Pearl Buck also won the Nobel Prize in literature, then ask your fifty closest friends if they have read Pearl Buck). But the question of "the test of time" ultimately doesn't matter to us: no one reading this piece will be around a hundred years from now anyway. We do owe it to ourselves to keep the tradition of the great American novel alive, though, and at least as of right now, we should honor our living writers by reading their best work. The five authors discussed here are a great place to start.

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    • jenbeach21 profile image

      jenbeach21 4 years ago from Orlando, FL

      Loved this article! I completely agree with your choices and I think American Pastoral by Philip Roth was one of his best books.

    • iheartkafka profile image

      iheartkafka 4 years ago

      I'm impressed at your ability to narrow this down to a list of 5! Phillip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates are certainly two that won't receive much debate. For me, I think Colum McCannn deserves a place on this list. In both _Let the Great World Spin_ and _This Side of Brightness_ (my two favorites of his) he brilliantly unites fact and fiction, history and the present day. His prose is so dense it simply astounds me!

    • Unkado profile image

      Unkado 4 years ago

      I am also impressed. It is certainly difficult to narrow a list to 5, excluding many who are equally worthy. The selection to such a list is certainly one of personal preference, as well as, noteworthiness of the author. I read the authors of your list and can't argue with any of them being on your list; however, my list would need to include E. Annie Proulx and Richard Russo. Their styles are quite different, yet they both seem to capture the heartache of the human condition in the soulful and humorous way reminiscent of another great American author; John Steinbeck.

    • thebiologyofleah profile image

      thebiologyofleah 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      This is a great article, really made me think about how I choose contemporary books and mostly I do it by buzz-worthy status and what my friends are reading. But you are absolutely right- most, if not all, of the current stuff we read will not be taught some day to students as the classics. Great list of suggestions to get me on track!

    • Samuel Hook profile image

      Samuel Hook 4 years ago from Smyrna, Tennessee

      Great list -- who would you include in a top ten list?

    • Dewey Stack profile image

      Dewey Stack 3 years ago

      As a history buff, I'd recommend Roth's "Plot Against America." Historical fiction always says more about the time in which it was written than it does about the time which it depicts; and there are obvious allusions to George W. Bush and the War on Terror. But this is different from other historical novels in that Roth lived through the WWII era as a child, and you can see his personal connection to the historical characters he depicts

    • profile image

      thenoah 2 years ago

      Pynchon, most definitely

      He merits top position

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