It’s been a while since I focused on a specific decade of literature, so today I’ll discuss…the 1980s.
At first thought, those 10 years don’t seem like an amazing period for fiction, but there were quite a few memorable novels published during that time. Just a coincidence? Maybe. Still, many ’80s authors were directly or indirectly influenced by that decade’s many political and cultural happenings — the conservative reigns of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the seismic changes in the Soviet Union, far-right evangelical involvement in U.S. politics, continued racism and patriarchy (“thanks” in part to those evangelicals), the sick “greed is good” mentality (not just in the ’80s of course), the AIDS pandemic, MTV, the rise of personal computers, etc.
I just finished The Alchemist, a seemingly simple short novel (just 167 pages) that’s actually quite profound. Paulo Coelho’s 1988-published saga of young Santiago’s epic journey probably could have been written in almost any decade, but it had a certain ’80s vibe in the way it emphasized self-fulfillment — while also tweaking materialism and conventionality.
Masterful novels such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits (1982), and Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987) told tales almost any reader could relate to while taking sobering looks at racism, misogyny, and more.
One could also include Blood Meridian (1985) in the previous paragraph, as Cormac McCarthy depicted a gang of depraved white-male murderers in the 19th-century American West — with many of their often-female victims Native Americans and people of Mexican descent.
Even Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980) and its five “Earth’s Children” sequels — the first three of which came out in 1982, 1986, and 1989 — included strong references to racism (against Neanderthals) and sexism that were quite recognizable in the 1980s even though the series was set 30,000 or so years ago.
Getting back to misogyny in particular, Margaret Atwood put that on steroids with The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) — which seemed unbelievable in the way it depicted a harshly patriarchal/hypocritically “religious” future U.S. society. But how unbelievable was it?
And in another women’s-rights area, John Irving’s The Cider House Rules (1985) dealt frankly with the issue of abortion.
In the realm of “greed is good” (it isn’t), Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here (1989) included a problematic, ultra-wealthy family. (Is any ultra-wealthy family NOT problematic?)
Moving to the crime-thriller genre, Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park (1981) and its initial sequel Polar Star (1989) had a lot to say about the Soviet Union and what led to its coming apart.
Among many other memorable ’80s novels were Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (both 1989), Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye (1988), Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers (1987), and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, and Tad Williams’ Tailchaser’s Song (all 1985).
Also, William Kennedy’s Ironweed (1983), W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe (the 1982 book that inspired the Field of Dreams movie), Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980), Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980), J.M.G. Le Clezio’s Desert (1980), and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (published in 1980 but written years earlier).
In addition, there was Barbara Kingsolver’s debut novel The Bean Trees (1988), various Stephen King novels such as Misery (1987), Sue Grafton’s first seven alphabet mysteries (starting in 1982), etc.
Of course, Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) is considered a quintessential ’80s novel, but I haven’t read it. Same with Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (1984).
And a number of novels waited until after the 1980s to at least partly address started-in-the-’80s issues such as AIDS, with one example being John Irving’s In One Person (2012). On the flip side of that time line, a certain 1949 George Orwell novel was set in…1984.
Last but not least, 1986 was when playwright/novelist Wole Soyinka became the first African writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature. (The 1957 recipient, Albert Camus, was born in Algeria but is mostly associated with France.)
I’ve named only some of the 1980s novels I’ve read. What are your favorites from that decade, whether I mentioned them or not?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about the welcome results of a contentious Board of Education referendum — is here.