Posted by: Corri van de Stege | March 5, 2009

New literary greats

After my book acquisition indulgence on Saturday, the next day the Sunday Times Culture section (on 1 March 09) ponders the question as to who will be the heir or heirs of John Updike.  ‘Simply being a good writer – or even a great one – is not sufficient reason to achieve this [equivalent to Updike’s] exalted status.’ Because, ‘to merit a headline obituary, an author must possess the ability to engage with the culture at large, to create works that become part of the fabric of their era, such as The Bonfire of the Vanities, Catch-22, the Grapes of Wrath or Rabbit, Run.’

Six possible candidates are considered as potential heirs to Updike:

Jonathan Franzen, whose book The Corrections became an international bestseller.  It’s one I haven’t read yet, so here it goes on my tbr list.    ‘….it was his story of a disintegrating Midwestern family that captured the spirit of his times, particularly his yuppie generation’s uneasy relatinship with affluence, technology and the cult of self-mprovement.’  Sounds interesting.

Michael Chabon, who ‘has [subsequently, i.e. after the publication of the Wonder Boys in 1995] proved to be one of America’s most prolifically adventurous writers.’  Again, I have not read this and so perhaps it’s time it went on my tbr list.

Jhumpa Lahiri – she is already on my tbr list and I am glad there is at least one female candidate within the six contenders for becoming the next great American writer!  ‘Lahiri’s special skill is to use the powerfully American theme of assimilation as a starting point for speaking to the larger culture, for depicting the manners and heartaches of dislocated people in an increasingly deracinated world.’  Her book, The Namesake has been on my list for… well, for a long time.

Dave Eggers – I used to have a copy of ‘You shall know our velocity’ but it is one of the many books that became lost or were left behind when moving from country to country.  He is considered to be a writer ‘able to peer over the horizon to a time when important fiction is no longer the sole property of big publishers, but can be controlled byu the author himself.’  This is because he has avoided great publishing houses, but rather has used McSweeney’s, the web-savvy press he co-founded in 1999.

Jeffrey Eugenides – So far I only possess a book edited by Eugenides, a collection of short stories ‘My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead: Great love stories from Checkhov to Munro’ but reading this review it seems that I will need to add his book Middlesex to my list.  The article notes that ‘In both books [i.e. Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides] Eugendis proves himself to be unsurpassed in writing about modern sexuality in all its permutations, which is not bad turn to stake out, as the career of Updike himself proves….’

And finally, there is Jonathan Lethem, a writer I had never heard of before. ‘His breakthrough came in 1999 with Motherless Brooklyn, a wildly inventive detective story whose hero suffers frm Tourette’s. ‘  Perhaps that’s why I haven’t noticed him, apparently he draws heavily on science fiction, comic books and hard-boiled detective fiction.  

Here then are a number of writers to watch out for and if your tbr list is only thin, which I doubt, you may just want to add some of the titles to your list.   I have, even if my list currently is beyond manageability!  I’m going back to Mahfouz now, and I also have a draft review ready of A Case of Exploding Mangos….


  1. Fun post! I’m going to second Michael Chabon, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Jeffrey Eugenides. I feel like The Corrections was a pretty good book, but mostly hype. I’ve read all of Lahiri and Eugenides works, and they’re just spot on. The Virgin Suicides is one of my favorite books.

    Motherless Brooklyn was a great read, but I’ve not read anything else by Lethem.

  2. Lethem might be a one hit wonder (something we Yanks are a bit suspicious of), and I agree with Priscilla about Franzen. Let’s see what else he does over time. As for Chabon, he works hard and he makes people laugh out loud. He bears watching for the prize. Keep us current on how the reading goes and what you think!

  3. Priscilla – Wow, I am really impressed with your reading list, have you reviewed these? I’ll check your blog!
    Oh – This week I managed to finish Mahfouz’s first in the trilogy and not much more – this is all of the long haul…

  4. I am actually surprised that I have read four of the six writers mentioned.

    I read The Corrections a few weeks ago and, though I enjoyed it, I was definitely not bowled over. Middlesex is one of my favorite books and I recently read The Virgin Suicides, which I loved as well. Earlier this year I read The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon and that was a good book as well. I’d love to read more of his works.

    Jhumpa Lahiri has been on my radar for a while. I have heard many good things about her books.

  5. Myrthe – this is very impressive! But then you are a great reader and I value your reviews – it’s lovely to compare notes. I’m going to get hold of Middlesex and some of the others… my tbr pile is growing again…. Thank you.

  6. Jeffrey Eugenides is on my reading list. I heard a lot of great things about Middlesex.

    Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories, Unaccustomed earth is a disappointment after Namesake, which I enjoyed tremendously.

    I’ve always liked Jonathan Franzen. I actually liked The Corrections, it’s hysterical and very true-to-life. The collection of essays, How to be Alone, is a favorite piece of NF.

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