Pow! Crunch! Attention spans shrink to the small end of nothing, and the flash-bang memory burn of the cinema and the flatscreen makes reading an exceptional feat of concentration (too slow! too many distractions!) and we wonder if literature is dead or dying, or struggling in intensive care with a morphine drip. More and more we want sparkly things, flashy things, like jangling car-keys before the eyes of an infant. Reading is still and slow and silent. We want comic book superheroes in Dolby surround sound!
People still read, of course, and scholars continue to debate gnat-size points of narrative theory and structure and so on, so books are safe from the dustbin for a while, but they seem more like artifacts from another time, and we fear literature has lost the power to body-slam the culture, grab our lapels, challenge our calcified views, make us weep over poor Nell. I don't want to sound cynical and elitist to boot, but I bet there are more people who saw "Iron Man" this weekend than all the people who have read all these books put together... Oh, skip that. Anyway, here are some writers. Since this will be a regular feature, I won't lament those I haven't included, or the fact that these writers all happen to be male, and white. We'll get to others.
Ken Kesey. This Oregonian had some misfires, sure, but he delivered at least one classic -- the story of a lone individual who fights the Combine. Not your typical writer, whatever that means, this former wrestling champ and Merry Prankster painted the first psychedelic school bus and hit the road with Neal Cassidy, the man who inspired Kerouac to write "On The Road." Here is a news magazine story on Kesey and his post-lit life in Pleasant Hill, Oregon. Kesey wrote "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Sometimes a Great Notion."
Cormac McCarthy. An ornery old coot who writes dark neo-westerns in sometimes spare, sometime ornate language. Without him, no "Deadwood." Part of a rare interview with McCarthy (interviewed poorly by Oprah). McCarthy is known for the Border Trilogy, "Blood Meridian," and "The Road" -- and "No Country for Old Men."
Jonathan Lethem often returns to his Brooklyn childhood in his work, and his love of music permeates his writing. Here he discusses his latest book, "You Don't Love Me Yet." Lethem also wrote "Motherless Brooklyn" and "Fortress of Solitude."
Jonathan Franzen on Charlie Rose. Writing novels is useless..." More famous for fighting Oprah (Oprah again) for not wanting to have Oprah book club stickers on his novel "The Corrections," a novel exploring relationships in a contemporary American family that owes much to Victorian novels. "The Corrections" won the National Book Award.