Authors: Ann Beattie

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American short-story writer and novelist

Author Works

Short Fiction:

Distortions, 1976

Secrets and Surprises, 1978

Jacklighting, 1981

The Burning House, 1982

Where You’ll Find Me, and Other Stories, 1986

What Was Mine, and Other Stories, 1991

Park City: New and Selected Stories, 1998

Perfect Recall: New Stories, 2001.

Long Fiction:

Chilly Scenes of Winter, 1976

Falling in Place, 1980

Love Always, 1985

Picturing Will, 1989

Another You, 1995

My Life, Starring Dara Falcon, 1997

The Doctor’s House, 2002

Nonfiction:

Alex Katz, 1987

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

Goblin Tales, 1975

Spectacle, 1985

Biography

Ann Beattie (BEE-tee) is perhaps the most imitated short-story writer in America and one of the writers most identified with the minimalist school of fiction. She was born to middle-class parents–her father was an administrator in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare–and she grew up in Washington, D.C. In 1969, she earned a B.A. in English from American University and an M.A. from the University of Connecticut one year later. She began work toward a doctorate at Connecticut but left without completing the program. She was married to and later divorced from David Gates, who would become a writer for Newsweek and an acclaimed novelist. In 1988, she married her second husband, the painter Lincoln Perry. For a time, Beattie taught at Harvard University and the University of Virginia. Generally regarded as literature’s spokesperson for those who came into maturity in the 1960’s, she acknowledges the role that television, rock music, and the drugs often associated with the counterculture play in her work and in the lives of her characters. She resents, however, the tendency to ignore other aspects of her work because of the critical fascination with what critic Joseph Epstein has labeled the “hippoisie.”{$I[AN]9810001176}{$I[A]Beattie, Ann}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Beattie, Ann}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Beattie, Ann}{$I[tim]1947;Beattie, Ann}

Ann Beattie

(Benjamin Ford)

Beattie began writing fiction while she was a student at the University of Connecticut, partly, she says, out of boredom with graduate school. While she was still a student, her stories began to appear in small magazines such as the Western Humanities Review and the Texas Quarterly. After making nearly two dozen submissions to The New Yorker, her first story to be accepted there, “A Platonic Relationship,” appeared in the April 8, 1974, issue. From that time on, she has been a regular contributor to the magazine; many of the stories in her collections first appeared there. Beattie’s debut in book form was almost unprecedented, for her first collection of stories, Distortions, and her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, appeared simultaneously in 1976. Most critics, at that time and since, have preferred Beattie’s stories to her novels. Although the characters and situations in Distortions and Chilly Scenes of Winter are more extreme, perhaps, than those in subsequent collections, they are typical of the themes and style associated with Beattie.

These characters are, in most cases, educated, middle-class or upper-middle-class men, women, and children who find themselves disappointed and disillusioned despite having achieved much of what is commonly believed to define the American Dream. They tend to be unhappy in love, in family life, and in their work; if not actually unhappy, they are merely coping and without any feeling of real satisfaction. Friendship is important to the characters and is the refuge they most often seek from the daily lives and family situations that create their conflicts. Charles, the protagonist of Chilly Scenes of Winter, says at one point that he knows too much to be happy, a coda of sorts for a feeling that permeates all of Beattie’s work: The well-educated, self-conscious generation from which she draws her main characters finds bliss, or the happiness of the Norman Rockwell image of family, impossible in view of an overwhelming knowledge. Thus the struggle of the characters becomes one of balancing self-conscious knowledge of self and world with the desire for innocence and joy. In Secrets and Surprises, Beattie’s second collection of stories, the characters tend to be a little older and their struggles more mundane in some ways. Distortions had included a dwarf who lives in a dwarf house and an extraterrestrial visitation. In Secrets and Surprises, the characters and their lives are less overtly distorted, but the impulses and conflicts are essentially the same.

Falling in Place, Beattie’s second novel, is a novel of manners, but the manners it takes as its subject are entirely contemporary. Here the cast of characters is larger than that of the first novel, and the novel also contains a subplot in the true, old-fashioned sense of the term. This novel is both one of the more ambitious and one of the more traditional of Beattie’s works. It tells of two central relationships, that of John Knapp and his mistress, Nina, which leads to turmoil within his suburban Connecticut family, and, in the subplot, that of Cynthia Forrest and her lover, Peter Spangle. The events unfold during the summer of 1978, when Skylab is falling, Peter Frampton is the hot teen idol of the moment, and radio is saturated with the sounds of pop singer Blondie’s hit “Heart of Glass.” For the characters in this novel, the world and their lives are as fragile as the robin’s egg John brings to Nina as a gift. Parents and children cannot get along, lovers are unhappy together, and friends cannot rescue each other from the turmoil of family and love. There are characters as distorted as any in the earlier work in the background of this essentially realistic world, and the solutions to the problems presented seem almost impossible to find. The story concludes, however, with a strong affirmation of love as the answer to the sense of purposelessness and ennui that defines Beattie’s fictional world.

The collection The Burning House and the novel Love Always are more like the earlier works. The characters do not solve their problems or even make the same enormous effort that the characters in Falling in Place make. The main character of Love Always, Lucy, has achieved a measure of fame since her niece Nicole, a soap-opera actress, has come to live with her aunt; it is possible that the feelings about public recognition and expectations explored in the novel are a reflection of Beattie’s feelings about her own role as the writer of record for her generation. The tone in Love Always tends toward the ironic and despondent. Where You’ll Find Me, and Other Stories, like The Burning House, features characters who are somewhat older than those in the earlier work, and they seem more intent upon deriving meaning out of life, however bleak the possibilities for meaning may be. They want to create meaning before their chance to do so is past. They have the same awareness of life’s ironies and of its potential for disaster, disappointment, and stagnation as the earlier characters had, but they are less concerned with noting those pitfalls than with finding ways to move beyond or around them. “Snow,” a story in Where You’ll Find Me, contains a sentence that could serve as a definition for minimalism: “Any life will seem dramatic if you omit mention of most of it.” In the novel Picturing Will, Beattie achieves a new degree of intricately crafted structure, and in What Was Mine, and Other Stories her style is all the more emotionally charged for its restrained, flat diction and emotional detachment.

In the novel Another You, a college professor’s life is disrupted by the actions of his wife, a student, and a colleague. My Life, Starring Dara Falcon tackles the complexities and dangers of a friendship between two disparate women: Jean, who is searching for her identity, and Dara Falcon, who makes ordinary life into high drama. The novel A Doctor’s House offers a portrait of a dysfunctional family, exhibiting how the ills of the parents ruin the lives of the children. Disillusioned in marriage by her manipulative, cheating husband, a wife turns to alcoholism, and both parents neglect the children during their formative years.

In Park City: New and Selected Stories, Beattie added eight stories never before published in book form to twenty-eight of her best from five previous collections. Perfect Recall: New Stories, a collection of eleven stories, explores relationships gone awry and the fragile bond of male friendship.

A character in a story from Where You’ll Find Me, “Summer People,” longs for a life like that in an eighteenth century novel with an omniscient narrator who is in control and can make readers aware of anything and everything. The narrative presence throughout Beattie’s work operates on the same thin edge as the characters do, never quite willing or able to say that this is the truth, this is life, as it is and will be. Yet that presence also refuses to deny completely the possibility of moving forward with as much dignity and grace, as much quiet joy, as possible. Beattie and her characters do not merely omit mention of detail to provide drama; they carefully select details to probe and examine for suggestions as to how they should proceed to accomplish their limited goals. Beattie’s place in American letters will be assured by her careful crafting of the story form, by her important influence on the minimalist movement, and by her ability to capture time and place so vividly and astutely.

BibliographyAldridge, John. “Less Is a Lot Less (Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Amy Hempel, Frederick Barthelme).” In Talents and Technicians. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992.Atwood, Margaret. “Stories from the American Front.” The New York Times Book Review, September 26, 1982, 1, 34. Discusses The Burning House as it represents the loss of the American dream for the children of the 1960’s. For Beattie, freedom equals the chance to take off, run away, split. Beattie’s stories chronicle domesticity gone awry, where there are dangers and threats lurking beneath the surface of even the most mundane events. Observes that most of the stories in this collection concern couples in the process of separating.Barth, John. “A Few Words About Minimalism.” The New York Times Book Review, December 28, 1986, 1, 2, 25. Explores Beattie’s spare style and considers her fiction as it represents a current stylistic trend in the American short story. Spends a considerable amount of space describing the origins of the contemporary minimalist movement in American short fiction. Sees this form as a nonverbal statement about theme: the spareness of life in America. Places Beattie’s work among that of other minimalists, including Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, James Robison, Mary Robison, and Tobias Wolff. Discusses Edgar Allan Poe as an early proponent of minimalism. Says that Beattie’s fiction is clearly shaped by the events surrounding the Vietnam War. A helpful essay for gaining an understanding of Beattie as a minimalist.Beattie, Ann. “An Interview with Ann Beattie.” Interview by Steven R. Centola. Contemporary Literature 31 (Winter, 1990): 405-422. Provides biographical information and background on Beattie’s fiction. Beattie discusses herself as a feminist writer and how she goes about creating credible male protagonists. Discusses Falling in Place, Love Always, Chilly Scenes of Winter, and Picturing Will.Berman, Jaye, ed. The Critical Response to Ann Beattie. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. Includes contemporary reaction to Beattie’s novels and collections of short stories, as well as scholarly and academic analyses of her work by various critics.Gelfant, Blanche H. “Ann Beattie’s Magic Slate: Or, The End of the Sixties.” New England Review 1 (1979): 374-384. Examines Beattie’s short stories as reflecting the concerns of adults who came of age during the hippie years. Discusses Beattie’s desolate landscapes and the pervading sense of doom found in much of her fiction. Focuses on Secrets and Surprises and Distortions, saying that they are a requiem for the freedom and wildness of the United States of the 1960’s. Beattie concentrates on what amounts to the trivia of the everyday in order to make her points about the minutiae of the average person’s life. Also compares Beattie’s fiction with that of Joan Didion. Sees Beattie as a writer who explores the violence, inertia, futility, and helplessness of contemporary American culture.Hansen, Ron. “Just Sitting There Scared to Death.” The New York Times Book Review, May 26, 1991, 3, 14. Discusses Beattie’s collection What Was Mine and Other Stories. Hansen says that Beattie’s fiction provides insightful portraits of people in their thirties and forties who experience broken marriages and shattered dreams. Comments on Beattie’s ability to portray a realistic male point of view. Says that her females in this book are ill-defined and hard to understand. Hansen is critical of Beattie’s style as being too elliptical and relying too much on inference rather than on direct commentary. Despite this shortcoming, he says that the collection is a success, describing it as an almost photojournalistic chronicle of the disjunctions in the contemporary world. Categorizes What Was Mine and Other Stories as being more introspective than Beattie’s earlier collections of short fiction.Lee, Don. “About Ann Beattie.” Ploughshares 21, no. 2-3 (1995): 231-235. A good biographical and critical essay, based on an interview and including extensive quotations. Beattie points out that as she has matured, her novels have become more complex and therefore more time-consuming to produce. She describes her difficulties with Another You, which left her even more partial than before to short fiction.McKinstry, Susan Jaret. “The Speaking Silence of Ann Beattie’s Voice.” Studies in Short Fiction 24 (Spring, 1987): 111-117. Asserts that Beattie’s female speakers puzzle readers because they tell two stories at once: an open story of the objective, detailed present juxtaposed against a closed story of the subjective past, which the speaker tries hard not to tell.Montresor, Jaye Berman, ed. The Critical Response to Ann Beattie. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. Collection of essays presents contemporary reviews of Beattie’s novels and collections of short stories as well as scholarly and academic analyses of her work by various critics. Novels discussed include Chilly Scenes of Winter and Picturing Will.Murphy, Christina. Ann Beattie. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Provides a good general introduction to Beattie’s work. Discusses her major stories, illustrating her central themes and basic techniques, and examines the relationship of the stories to her novels. Also addresses Beattie’s place in the development of the contemporary American short story.Opperman, Harry, and Christina Murphy. “Ann Beattie (1947-): A Checklist.” Bulletin of Bibliography 44 (June, 1987): 111-118. A useful guide to Beattie’s work. Contains a helpful brief introductory essay that identifies Beattie as an important authorial voice that came of age during the 1960’s. Views her as a descendant of Ernest Hemingway. Her characters are refugees from the Woodstock generation, idealistic dreamers caught by ennui, drifters and people who are emotional burnouts. Says that her characters resemble F. Scott Fitzgerald’s: Both have outlived their youthful romanticism and are now materialistic rather than idealistic. Also compares her to John Cheever and John Updike. Provides both primary and secondary bibliographies through 1986.Porter, Carolyn. “The Art of the Missing.” In Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies, edited by Catherine Rainwater and William J. Scheick. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985. Argues that Beattie economizes not by developing a symbolic context, as James Joyce and Sherwood Anderson did, but rather by using the present tense and thus removing any temptation to lapse into exposition, forcing the background to emerge from dialogue of character consciousness.Stein, Lorin. “Fiction in Review.” Yale Review 85, no. 4 (1997): 156-165. Presents an excellent summary of Beattie’s early fiction and then analyzes My Life, Starring Dara Falcon. Asserts that the novel has generally been underrated by critics.Trouard, Dawn, ed. Conversations with Ann Beattie. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. Collection reprints interviews with the author from 1979 to 2004, including an interview conducted by Trouard. Beattie addresses her sense of contemporary American life and misconceptions regarding her work; she also compares writing to photography. Includes chronology and index.Wyatt, David. “Ann Beattie.” Southern Review 28, no. 1 (1992): 145-159. Presents evidence that a marked alteration occurred in Beattie’s fiction in the mid-1980’s. Instead of withdrawing from life and its dangers, her characters began to choose to care about other people and to commit themselves to creativity. A perceptive and convincing analysis.Young, Michael W., and Troy Thibodeaux. “Ann Beattie.” In A Reader’s Companion to the Short Story in English, edited by Erin Fallon et al. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. Focuses on Beattie’s short stories but includes informative biographical material on the author.
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