Selling itself as a handbook for readers who consume books "for pleasure," The Salon.com 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 Salon.com--a 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 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
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
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