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The Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors Paperback – August 1, 2000

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Editorial Reviews Review

Selling itself as a handbook for readers who consume books "for pleasure," The Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors hopes to fill a perceived gap on the reference shelf. Its editor, Laura Miller, declares in the preface: "We didn't imagine an audience of researchers or scholars or critics or prize committees or members of the publishing industry, even if some of those people still do occasionally read a book with the hopes of enjoying it." The chief irony of this claim is that this Baedeker originated at den of insiders, merciless critics, and juicy gossip. And there's plenty here that the "pure" reader wouldn't need to know: the dirt on big advances, whose career went into a tailspin, what the reviewers said. If Miller's aim was to escape the careerists of the publishing world, she has nevertheless assembled a book they'll eat like catnip.

And a highly original book it is, too. Like 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

From Booklist

Can't decide what to suggest for your book club's next selection? Now that Oprah has made fiction cool, it seems only fitting that Salon, the hip electronic magazine, would come to the aid of the reading-group crowd. This guide to contemporary authors of literary fiction ("whose major works were published since 1960") falls somewhere between cutesy book chat and a shorthand version of Masterplots. Each entry, from Edward Abbey through Stephen Wright, contains a listing of the author's works, a one-or two-page overview of the oeuvre, and a few read-alike suggestions. Sprinkled throughout the text are sidebar lists and essays by well-known writers (Erica Jong's favorite "smart and sexy" novels). Inevitably, the quality of the entries varies dramatically--from book-report bland to genuinely insightful. But that's the fun of this kind of book: browsing at top speed, dismissing as you go, and then being brought up short by a nugget like Jonatham Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn [BKL Jl 99]) on Bernard Malamud. If your commitment to lit crit extends only as long as it takes to drink a latte, this is the book for you. Bill Ott
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 455 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Putnam (August 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 014028088X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140280883
  • Product Dimensions: 7.4 x 1.2 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,017,786 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Laura Miller is a journalist and critic living in New York. She is a co-founder of, where she is currently a staff writer, and a contributor to the New York Times Book Review, where she wrote the Last Word column for two years. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian and other publications. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" (Little, Brown, 2008) and editor of the "The Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors" (Penguin, 2000).

NOTE: I am *not* the author of guidebooks to Disneyland -- that's another Laura Miller. Amazon doesn't allow authors to delete titles wrongly attributed to them!

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By R. W. Rasband VINE VOICE on September 7, 2000
Format: Paperback
What impresses me about this book is that the critics involved write about what pleases them instead of what they think is the *correct* thing to read. Kurt Vonnegut, who has taken it on the chin from many reviewers lately, gets a warm appreciation from Dave Eggers. And Bret Easton Ellis gets a non-poisonous review (not that I like Ellis all that much, but it's nice to see a dissent from the conventional wisdom for a change.) A few writers get dissed: Michael Crichton is quickly chopped into hamburger, and Edwidge Danticat and Alice Walker are surprisingly (but accurately) dismissed as non-entities. Saul Bellow gets a mixed review. My favorite old white guy, Philip Roth, gets a positive write-up and I learned about possible new authors to read like Geoff Nicholson. One limitation: the exclusion of translated works leaves out a master like Milan Kundera. And any collection that includes the hack John Grisham and leaves out the wonderful Scott Turow needs a reality check. (The "See Also" paragraphs that follow each main review help make up for some of the most obvious exclusions.) Well worth your time.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By eric on September 25, 2000
Format: Paperback
this is what I needed! and so many other people too... a place to run when someone talks glibly about some author... you want a basic, opinionated take on them, and you want a list of the person's books -- but with a sub-list of the ones that are notable and should be read. AND you want the word on "what is the ONE book by them that you should read if you were only to read one?"
I just wish to god they had this for popular music. and maybe they're doing it. would be a harder task.
LOVE this book.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 16, 2000
Format: Paperback
Like any "guide" this expansive, there are plenty of omissions and controversial assessments; that's the point. You are allowed to agree or disagree or argue with the choices. But what's shocking are the number of typos contained in this supposed reference book. There seems to be at least one error per page, from A.M. Homes' age (they've added ten years) to Brett Easton Ellis with two t's to retitling the new Denis Johnson book "The Name of the Word." (It's actually The Name of the World.") I don't blame the editors; the fault lies with the publisher and their staff I would guess. Otherwise, this is a lot of fun.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Michael J. Mazza HALL OF FAME on July 6, 2002
Format: Paperback
"The Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors" is edited by Laura Miller, with Adam Begley. It consists primarily of alphabetically-arranged entries on selected writers. Each entry contains a list of books by the author, as well as a critical essay. This collection of writers is international and multicultural, although the selection is (as noted in the preface) limited to authors who write (or wrote) fiction in English and who have had major works published since 1960.
This is a book that I use both to "discover" authors I'm not familiar with, as well as to get new perspectives on authors I already know (either passingly or thoroughly). Each entry is about 1 to 2 pages long. A very short sampler of some of the authors covered: Chinua Achebe, Sherman Alexie, Saul Bellow, Charles Bukowski, Ian Fleming, Allegra Goodman, Ursula K. LeGuin, Amy Tan, Gore Vidal, etc.
The critical articles contain some questionable statements, but that's half the fun of this book: it's a reference work with which an intelligent reader can disagree.
In addition to the main entries, there is a series of sidebar book lists compiled by various individuals. Examples: "Five Contemporary Noir Classics," listed by David Bowman; "A Walk on the Wild Side: Very Original Novels," by Peter Carey; "Smart and Sexy," by Erica Jong; etc. The books are listed with short descriptive paragraphs.
There is also a series of interspersed literary essays: "Every Novel Is a Lesbian Novel," by Dorothy Allison; "Of This World: Why Science Fiction Can't Be Dismissed," by John Clute; etc. If you love contemporary literature, you may find "The Reader's Guide" to be a wonderful resource.
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16 of 20 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 20, 2000
Format: Paperback
Opinionated--Yes. Irreverent--Somewhat. Eclectic--Definitely.
Some choices I just don't understand (Mario Puzo? John Grisham? Bret Easton Ellis? Tom Clancy? Jacqueline Susann? These people are "Fascinating"? Um, No.)
But, a lot of excellent, even brilliant, authors are included that would otherwise be overlooked: Sherman Alexie ("The Lone Ranger..." stories are just brilliant), Paul Auster ("City of Glass"), TC Boyle ("Collected Stories"), Raymond Carver (ANYTHING by Carver), VS Naipul ("A House for Mr. Biswas"--stunning), David Foster Wallace ("Infinite Jest"--you'll never look at a book the same way again!), and my personal favorite--Lydia Davis ("Break It Down"--A MUST READ/ditto "The End of the Story"). The usual OWM (old white men) deservedly get mentioned: Roth, Irving, Bellow, Mailer, Wolfe, Vidal. Even if you don't like them, their work has certainly shaped American writing.
Overall, an interesting selection of contemporary authors. Could have been a little more comprehensive on each entry, but still fairly thorough. Interesting trivia throughout.
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