And a highly original book it is, too. Like Salon.com itself, it collapses the distance between highbrow and lowbrow. Stephen King and Mario Puzo coexist with Lydia Davis and Donald Antrim; as a result, the game quickly becomes one of who is not included and who is. To Miller's credit, the answers continually surprise (though several omissions are regrettable). Loosely limiting authors to those who have some "contemporary" presence, entries attempt to place these writers in their time, to argue for their importance and influence. The entries themselves often suffer from bad writing; here's a metaphor that should be blocked: "If you could grab hold of one of O'Brien's images and wrestle it up from the page, you'd find long roots sunk deep into the earth. There's blood coursing through her exquisite prose, balancing its seeming delicacy with solidity and weight." Or, my favorite moment of exasperating silliness: "Are you sure you hate Bret Easton Ellis as much as you hate yourself?" A more limited pool of reviewers would have diminished a feeling of unevenness that undermines the book's authoritative posture. The best writing comes from Miller herself, who has emerged as the Pauline Kael of the book scene. Her prose is effortlessly provocative.
Often an entry about a writer's work will be followed by an essay by that author. These added essays and digressions are wonderfully varied and idiosyncratic: David Gates on "Breaking Up with the Beats," Dorothy Allison on why "Every Novel Is a Lesbian Novel," and though Calvin Trillin isn't assessed, he is allowed to write about "Books That Made Me Laugh." Combined with the guide's primary information, these additions allow the reader a glimpse into the chatter of famous authors--an imaginary tea party free of mercenaries and showoffs, of course, where pure-hearted readers hold forth about the joy of books and everybody has a turn. --Ellen Williams
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