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Ann Beattie: The Voice of a Generation

“The New Yorker Stories” now out in paperback and her latest novel “Mrs. Nixon: a novelist imagines a life” reminds us how Ann Beattie encapsulates America in her writing. Long before Lena Dunham, Ann Beattie is the voice of a generation.

 /By Glenda Toma/

© Sigrid Estrada /Scribner

Ann Beattie rose to fame in the early seventies, publishing short stories mainly in The New Yorker that encapsulated the feelings of an entire generation: her generation. Beattie was born on September 8, 1947, a baby boomer. When her stories first hit the stands, Beattie was only in her twenties and facing an audience that was largely disaffected. The sixties were a liberalizing time, the recession had ended and yet, as the seventies rolled around, none of that really mattered. In trying to write herself, Beattie wrote everyone.

In Shifting, Beattie tells the story of a couple who were together since their childhood but for no other reason than because they were both there. The woman, Natalie, inherits a car with a stick shift that she does not know how to drive. Her husband will not teach her, too busy studying for his masters’ in chemistry so she asks a young man instead. On the day of her last lesson, Natalie sleeps with the young man and soon after goes home. Beattie ends the story, simply saying, “This was 1972, in Philadelphia.”

That is what Beattie does best, capture the essence of a time and place. She makes no judgements in her writing and her style is straightforward. She writes what is. We see this progression in Beattie’s latest work The New Yorker Stories because as she grows, so do her characters. Long gone are the twenty somethings like those in “Colorado,” (her first story to pack a punch) with seemingly endless possibilities and yet, forced limits. The middle class, at that time, missing an ideal of adulthood, looked to Beattie for answers. Yet as time went by, it was not Beattie’s writing that changed, but rather her own generation. By the eighties, they had the answers. The middle class knew who it was and who it needed to be. They did not need Beattie to define them anymore.

However, with a career spanning over forty years, seven novels and countless short stories, that never stopped Beattie. She defined her generation in her own way, with a skill that lets the reader pinpoint exactly the time. Beattie is a writer that not only should we look to for chronicling the seventies, but every decade after because no one has captured the voice of the middle class better than her.

 

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