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A noted crafter of keenly observed, minimalist short stories and novels, Ann Beattie, by her own admission, ”fell into” writing, rising to overnight celebrity with the simultaneous publication of her first novel and short story collection in 1976. Hailed as a voice of the Baby Boomer generation, growing older and increasingly more bitter in the post-counterculture 1970s, Beattie herself largely rejected any such labels. Although she has continued to write regularly, she has also distanced herself more and more from the celebrity and attention she feels was thrust upon her.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Falling Into Writing
Anne Beattie was born into a typical American middle-class family in the national cap ital. Although her childhood was largely unremarkable, by her teenage years she began to run into trouble. By her senior year, according to Beattie, she had a D minus average because of an awful high school experience that included indifferent teachers and uninspired lessons. After barely graduating, her father was able to call in some favors and get his daughter admitted to American University.
Once in college, Beattie chose journalism as a major, though she was not terribly interested in the subject. As she progressed through college, a boyfriend convinced her to abandon journalism, which he referred to as a hopelessly middle-class profession, to focus on artistic pursuits. Beattie switched to an English major and took up writing as a hobby. After graduating with her English degree, Beattie decided on a career in academia and began pursuing a PhD in literature, still writing short stories for her own amusement but with no intention of getting them published.
It was through professor J. D. O’Hara that Beattie first began to look into publishing her stories. O’Hara had heard of Beattie’s writing through a shared friend, and he offered to critique her writing. Beattie dropped off her stories in O’Hara’s inbox at work, and he returned them to her the next day, full of marginal notes. Beattie credits O’Hara with helping her polish and hone her writing skills—”He really became my official editor. He taught me more about writing than I could have imagined learning elsewhere”—and with getting her to submit her stories to magazines, most notably The New Yorker.
Although Beattie sent in twenty-two stories to The New Yorker, it was no hardship; most of her stories were dashed off in the space of a few hours. Finally, in 1973, she submitted a story (”Victor Blue”) to The Atlantic Monthly that met with editorial approval; Beattie’s publishing career was underway. Her first story in The New Yorker (”A Platonic Relationship”) appeared the next year. It would mark the beginning of Beattie as a regular contributor to the magazine.
In 1976, Beattie saw the publication of both her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter (written in three weeks), and her first collection of short stories, Distortions. Beat-tie drew instant praise and comparisons to such authors as John Updike and J. D. Salinger. Her dry, witty, observational prose also struck a chord with the reading public, many of whom could identify as well with the characters in Beattie’s stories—former 1960s counterculture revolutionaries now cast adrift in the post-Woodstock doldrums of the 1970s, aimlessly chasing after cheap thrills and ”the next big thing.”
A Retreat from Stardom
Beattie was uncomfortable both with her sudden notoriety and the label being applied to her as the voice of her generation. One critic went so far as to call Beattie ”the Annie Hall of American letters,” invoking Diane Keaton’s famously sardonic and bemused character from the Woody Allen movie of the same name. Although she continued to write, producing eight novels under contract with her publisher, she largely withdrew from the public eye. Although she taught classes at such universities as Harvard and University of Virginia, she has largely supported herself through her writing, a career path that she clearly feels increasingly ambivalent about. As she states on About Ann Beattie: A Profile:
Any notion that this gets easier, or that people treat me nicer—it’s exactly the opposite of what really is the case. … The ground rules are always changed by those in control, the people who own the publishing houses. . . . I was thinking that really I had to admit to myself that there was no other skill I had, and that I couldn’t just get into a snit and change careers, because it just wasn’t going to happen. I mean, you just hope that there’s mercy.
Works in Literary Context
When Beattie began writing, short story writer” was not generally perceived as a legitimate aspiration for aspiring authors. Beattie is credited by many critics with, along with Raymond Carver, reviving the short-story form in the 1970s. Beattie also received critical praise for her spare, witty craftsmanship and mastery of characterization. Beattie’s work is characterized by her ruminations on her aging generation, and by her distinctive style, which has been included with the minimalist school of literature.
Literary minimalism is a specific style of writing that has reappeared at different periods of time, though the characteristics are broadly the same. As the name suggests, minimalist stories are marked by a certain starkness, in everything from the author’s descriptions to the dialogue to the scope of the story. Minimalist stories rely on hinted suggestions rather than overt proclamations, and generally feature a narrow focus, often involving rather unexceptional “everyman” characters.
Ernest Hemingway was one of the first authors to explore minimalist style in his prose, drawing instant attention for his clipped, spare dialogue and understated descriptions. Crime writers of the 1940s and 1950s such as Mickey Spillane would carry forward Hemingway’s prose style into a more commercialized format. Yet the minimalist school that Beattie belonged to arose out of a different set of influences, reacting against the ”new novels” of the 1950s and 1960s, in which writers like John Barth and Kurt Vonnegut explored a style of self-referential, irony-laced fiction known as metafiction. Minimalist writers rejected the postmodern, reflective qualities of metafiction in favor of a cooler, more detached perspective. Beattie’s style is typical of this approach, often eschewing direct descriptions of characters in favor of intricate examinations of their surroundings, from the food they eat to the music they listen to. Beattie has said that by examining what a person surrounds them-selves with, we can form our own mental picture of what they might look like.
Works in Critical Context
Critical reaction to Beattie’s work has been decidedly mixed. These extreme reactions seem to rest largely on Beattie’s minimalist approach: while some critics enjoy the spare, stripped-down fiction; others find it bland and uninteresting. Joshua Gilder, writing in the New Criterion, famously attacked minimalist writers like Beattie, claiming that their writing was not a case of ”less is more,” but rather ”less is less.” But for readers like Margaret Atwood, who is herself a much-admired novelist, poet, and playwright, and is on record as an admirer of Beattie’s, the level of involvement minimalism demands of its readers is precisely the appeal.
J. D. O’Hara, Beattie’s mentor when she was in college, wrote a glowing review of her first novel, Distortions: ”Beattie is a writer for all audiences … She combines a remarkable array of technical skills with material of wide popular appeal.” In particular, O’Hara singled out Beattie’s command of character, saying that, ”her characters inhabit our drab contemporary worlds and brood like us about their lovers, politicians and lives . . . They compose a wide-screen panorama of Life in These United States.”
Anatole Broyard, writing in The New York Times, was a bit harsher, saying her ”stories are rather like a high-fashioned model: All the humanity is dieted away in the attempt to achieve beauty and drama . . . After reading Distortions, I felt like a psychiatrist at the end of a hard day.” Broyard summed up his thoughts by saying, ”I am convinced that Beattie is, potentially, a good writer. In spite of a style that virtually eliminates personality, she still manages to haunt the reader with her work.”
- ”Ann Beattie.” The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
- ”Ann Beattie.” The Chronology of American Literature. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.
- ”Janus.” Short Stories for Students. Vol. 9. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2000.
- Maynard, Joyce. ”Visiting Anne Beattie.” The New York Times (May 11, 1980).
- Lee, Don. About Ann Beattie: A Profile. Retrieved September 28, 2008, from http://www.pshares.org/issues/article.cfm?prmArticleID=3901
- Garner, Dwight. Anne Beattie at 60. Retrieved September 30, 2008, from http://papercuts.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/09/07/anne-beattie-at-60/
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