Stacks of Good Books Are Weighty from the Decade That Started With ’80

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 The latest weekly piece — about the welcome results of a contentious Board of Education referendum — is here.

93 thoughts on “Stacks of Good Books Are Weighty from the Decade That Started With ’80

  1. Ah, you mention two of my favourite books and authors, Dave. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘The House of the Spirits’. Subsequently I’ve read almost all of Atwood and Allende’s books. I read a lot of Stephen King in the 80s, ‘Pet Sematary’ terrified me! I enjoyed ‘The Alchemist’, and went on to read it in Spanish, when I was learning the language.
    ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ stands out as a book I really didn’t enjoy much. Coming late to Rushdie, I started ‘Midnight’s Children’ earlier this year, having put it down about three-quarters of the way through, I’m still struggling to pick it up and finish it. I bought Stephen Hawkins’ ‘A Brief History of Time’ back in the 80s, but that’s still waiting on a dusty shelf.
    Those are just the few I remember!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Chris!

      Great, wide-ranging comment. 🙂 I’m also a huge fan of Margaret Atwood and Isabel Allende, and (like you) have read most of Atwood’s novels. While reading about a half-dozen of Allende’s. I think “Daughter of Fortune” and “Zorro” are my favorites of hers after the amazing “The House of the Spirits.”

      Impressive that you read “The Alchemist” in Spanish!

      I’ve also struggled with the two Rushdie novels I tried reading. I did read all of Stephen Hawking’s book, but can’t say I understood the majority of it. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dave, one of my favorite authors, is John Irving, whose A Prayer for Owen Meany was excellent.
    Then ” In One Person ” as you mention is one of his later books, ” In One Person”, dealing with the AIDS epidemic. He is a bold author who does not shy away from any topics. The book deals with sexual identities, desires, complications and somethines untimely death.
    Oh by the way Dave latest Lee Childs is out as always in October. But with his Brother.
    I am not sure I will read it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great blog! I was surprised how many I’ve read. I was expecting Bright Lights, Big City to be one of those “greed is good” books, but it wasn’t at all: more like the vibe of that great Daft Punk/ Spike Jonze video “Da Funk” 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Robert!

      Great that you’ve read so many ’80s novels! There are indeed many excellent ones.

      The thought of “Bright Lights, Big City” was off-putting for me, too, but, from what you say, it sounds like I was wrong. Maybe I should read it after all… 🙂


  4. By 1981, I had a preschooler, a toddler, and an infant. That was a decade for a lot of Dr. Seuss, Mother Goose, and The Care Bears. For adult reading, I read a lot of Reader’s Digest Condensed books. I didn’t have the time or attention span for full length books so I did appreciate the Reader’s Digest versions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Anne Marie!

      I totally hear you. It’s hard to read as many “grown-up” books — especially longer books — as one would want when one’s children are small. The number of novels I read also shrunk for me when my two daughters were young. But, as you note, there were always children’s books. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Dave, this was an amazing post – so many standouts listed. Speaking of John Irving, coming in just under the 80’s wire in 1989 was “A Prayer for Owen Meany”. I didn’t expect to like it at first, as the subject matter didn’t seem like my thing. But once the characters began developing, I couldn’t put it down. The construction of the work itself reinforced the belief that, regardless of how disconnected some actions may seem to be from the divine or positive or advantageous, all of our actions and outcomes do happen for a reason, and for a greater good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Donna!

      Glad you mentioned “A Prayer for Owen Meany”! A rather quirky novel (I guess one can say that about most of John Irving’s work 🙂 ), but I agree that it’s VERY compelling and indeed makes one think about chance, predestination, and more.


  6. I love books written in the 1980s, so many good stories! Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities is probably my favourite, but I also loved The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood and The Remains of the Day by Ishiguro (wanted to do something special about him on my blog today since it is his birthday!)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Diana!

      So many good stories indeed in that decade.

      Ah, you’re right — Kazuo Ishiguro turned 67 today. Quite a writer, as is Atwood and as was Eco. Will look forward to your post about Ishiguro, if you do one.

      I’ve read some of Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction but not “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” One of these days…

      Liked by 2 people

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  8. HI Dave, I don’t read that many modern books. More some reason my reading interests lie further back on the timeline. That being said, Roger Hargreaves wrote many of the wonderful Mr. Men and Little Miss books during the 1980s. Other excellent books I’ve read from this decade are Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum, Patriot Games by Tom Clancy and North and South [I can’t think of the name of the author]. From your list, Fried Green Tomatoes was a huge favourite book of mine when I was a teenager [17].

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Robbie!

      I remember you mentioning your preference for older books. Nineteen-eighties novels, though published 30-plus to 40-plus years ago, do indeed still feel rather modern in their themes, sensibilities, and so on. And some then-young authors from the ’80s are still around and still writing (King, Atwood, Ishiguro, etc.).

      But I appreciate you naming some ’80s books and authors you HAVE read. I loved “Fried Green Tomatoes…,” which I didn’t read until maybe seven or eight (?) years ago. I proceeded to read almost every other novel Fannie Flagg wrote. Many seem kind of “light” on the surface, but there’s plenty of seriousness and addressing of social issues not far underneath.

      Liked by 2 people

      • HI Dave, I do enjoy the challenge of finding books I’ve read to fit in with your weekly themes. I have read a great many different kinds of books over the years. My reading tastes changed periodically when my life changed. I remember when my sons were small, I read a lot of women’s fiction like Mauve Binchy and Rosamund Pilcher. I was to tired to cope with reading classics and to emotional to read anything heavy. Like you, I have read all the Earth Children series except for the second half of the last book. I will have a look and see what else Fannie Flagg has written. Fried Green Tomatoes is the only one of her books I’ve read.

        Liked by 2 people

        • GREAT point, Robbie, that one’s reading list can indeed be different when one has young children! (I was more the stay-at-home parent with our younger daughter — freelancing rather than full-time by then — and big, challenging novels were not my preference for a few years.

          I think my two favorite Fannie Flagg novels after “Fried Green Tomatoes…” are “A Redbird Christmas” and “The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion” (which has a WWII women pilots theme).

          Rosamunde Pilcher’s “The Shell Seekers” is a stunningly good novel.

          Liked by 2 people

            • “The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion” IS a really good novel — Fannie Flagg handles the women-flying-during-WWII theme in a very interesting/personal/nostalgic way — all while being very aware of the sexism and challenges the pilots (one in particular) faced.

              Thanks so much for reading my literary-trivia book. 🙂 Glad you’re enjoying it!

              Liked by 1 person

  9. It’s incredible, for me, Dave, that all these great books you listed up have been written in 1980.One of the I liked very much is “The remains of the day” by Kazuo Ishiguro, and it’s tragic end!
    I think that I found another, for me, precious book, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. This is the story of the friendship of two boy of two different ethnies in Afghanistan. Amir wants to win the kite-fighting tournament and prove that he is a man. His friend Hassan, only from a low-caste, helps him, not only once, but continuously! Amir is, however, jealous of Hassan’s courage! But then something terrible happens, which shatters their lives !
    As I am actually frequently in that region with my thoughts, this book is quite in connection.
    Have a good day and many thanks :)Martina

    Liked by 3 people

  10. I read Vonnegut’s Dead Eye Dick, Galapagos and Time Quake, King’s Misery, Winterson’s Sexing The Cherry and I’m sure there were more, though I can’t seem to recall them at present. I know there’s such a thing as having a bad day, but do you think this applies to decades as well? Cause the 80s were very bleak for me, Think the recession had a lot to do with it. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane Dave even if the street lights were rather dim, Great post as always. Susi

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Susi!

      I appreciate the mentions of those authors. Yes, Vonnegut was still writing interesting stuff in the 1980s, and Stephen King was in the middle of his usual prodigious output that has yet to stop 30-40 years later.

      Sorry that decade wasn’t a better one for you. A problematic economy never helps. 😦 My ’80s were kind of mixed. Had a not-so-good job early in the decade and then a great one that didn’t sour until years later. Got married to the wrong person (we later divorced) but we have a wonderful daughter.

      “Thanks for the stroll down memory lane…even if the street lights were rather dim” — great, poignant line.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Stephen King wrote some excellent books during the 1980s including Firestarter, The Running Man, and Pet Semetary. The Talisman, also written in the 80s was co-written with Peter Straub if I’m not mistaken. I recall that book as being quite weird and I struggled to follow it a bit but I was only 13 when I read it and that is probably why I found it complex.

        Liked by 3 people

      • Well, bad times are the things which, at best, make good literature, at worst a lousy country/western song, I think I’ve read everything Vonnegut wrote–novels, essays, speeches.. His Noodle Factory speech was on of my favorite: Primarily because my dad always use to tell me to “use my noodle” ha! Excerpt: “I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found. By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well. This to me is a miracle.” — “The Noodle Factory,” speech given at the dedication of the Shain Library at Connecticut College, New London.. I’m eagerly awaiting your next post. Susi . .

        Liked by 3 people

        • Very true about bad times often making for good literature.

          Impressive that you’ve read so much of Vonnegut, Susi! I’ve read some of his work, but not a lot. That’s a wonderful quote of his you cited! Thank you! He really had quite a way with words.

          Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t like the late 70s or any of the 80s. Glad they passed and I survived. It was a time of unconscionably ignoble action fed by unspeakable ignorance. I read my way though Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear and reread Tess of the D’urbervilles. I also read A Room of One’s Own and The Handmaid’s Tale. Right now I’m reading The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler and maybe the sequels. My favorite Morrison is Beloved. The first time I read Beloved I was too immature — early thirties. I read it again in my mid-forties and was consumed by its power! My work doesn’t allow much time for new reading but I also appreciated Coehlo’s The Alchemist as well as Allende, Marquez and Cisneros. I was a Tolkien fan in middle and high school and in my fifties fell in love with C.S. Lewis. I could use some advise about what will resonate now that I’m about to be 67.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thank you, Mildred!

        The ’70s and ’80s certainly had some downsides, but at least there were a lot great novels. 🙂

        You named many excellent authors or novels from various eras! Hardy, Forster, Tolkien, Marquez, Morrison, Atwood, Allende, Auel, etc.

        I read “Parable of the Sower” a couple of years ago, and found it compelling. Liked Octavia Butler’s “Kindred” more, but “Parable” was quite good.

        As for what would resonate, I feel many novels appeal to various ages. In recent years, among the authors I’ve been drawn to are classic writers such as George Eliot and Dostoevsky, and current writers such as Liane Moriarty and J.K. Rowling (not only her Harry Potter books but her crime thrillers).

        Liked by 2 people

  11. This is my third time around because you had me thinking of what I was reading in the 1980’s. I agree, this was an extraordinary decade of change, the rise of materialism and consumerism. Do you remember the word yuppie and the huge boost to inflation in that early 1980’s that reached unbelievable levels. When I looked at the books that came out in that same decade, for me, they appear to be a light as well as a warning for society. I was reading non-fiction at the time, so my recollection is Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time.”

    I am delighted that you enjoyed “The Alchemist.” Did you know that it has sold more than 150 Million copies worldwide. My brother, Brian, recommended to me because it had come to him at the right time. Books are like that, aren’t they? Reading about Paulo Coelho’s background added more meaning to this reading. I understand that he always wanted to be a writer, but his parents discouraged this dream. They committed him to a mental institution at the age of 17. He escaped on his third try.

    “Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.” Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Audrey!

      I loved “Watership Down” when I read it many years ago. Glad to hear Richard Adams wrote other books you (mostly) liked. And, yes, it’s hard to find any book that’s perfect, unless there’s one titled “Perfect”… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Nice run down memory lane. My favorites of the eighties, lingering on to now, were what I called the four Johns; Irving, Updike, McPhee and Cheever. I know Cheever is a cheat, died 1982, but to me he’s one of the gang. During the time I was also and still am a Saul Bellow fan.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, James!

      You named some high-profile authors there. 🙂 I love much of John Irving’s work, and I think John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” (written of course in the 1960s, not the 1980s) is one of the great 20th-century short stories. Mixed feelings about Updike and Bellow, and I’ve never tried McPhee.

      So many well-known “John” authors — also Grisham (who I think was first published in the ’80s), Steinbeck, J.R.R. Tolkien, etc.!

      Liked by 2 people

      • McPhee has a non-fiction investigative, reporter-type style. He did a lot of interviews for The New Yorker and he’s famous for “Basin and Range,” a monumental investigation of California’s Motherlode region. The book follows Interstate 80 across California discussing geology, plate tectonics, the Donner Party, Central (Union) Pacific’s trans-Sierra railroad, and gold mining. It’s a door stop but great reading.

        Liked by 4 people

        • Thank you for that info about McPhee! His Route 80 book sounds fascinating! (I’m near Route 80’s eastern end, which is about 15 miles northeast of my New Jersey apartment.) The number of that superhighway relates a bit to the ’80s, I guess. 🙂 )

          Liked by 1 person

  13. Amazing how many of these books were made into movies.
    Although I haven’t read many of the books you mention, I’ve seen all of the movies.(lol)
    Okay, again I’m going with Joy Fielding. “Kiss Mommy Goodbye” – 1981. A thriller about parental kidnapping.
    The “The Other Woman” – 1984. A story of how a woman tries to save her marriage, after a young beautiful woman tells her – I’m going to marry your husband”. (this was made into a tv movie)
    Both topics were hot issues in the 1980’s and remain so today.

    Liked by 3 people

  14. John LeCarre’ published two notable novels in the 80’s–‘The Little Drummer Girl’ in ’83 (which I’ve not yet read) and perhaps his greatest, ‘A Perfect Spy’ in 1986 (Phillip Roth claimed that it was the best English novel since the war (presumably WW II). I read it the next year, in 1987, so I don’t remember a lot of details but I recall being struck by its power. I will definitely re-read it. It transcended the spy genre without a doubt.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Brian!

      Glad you mentioned John le Carré. I’ve only read one novel by him — “The Russia House,” just a few months ago — but I found it very compelling. I just checked its pub date, and it was 1989, so my bad for forgetting to include it in today’s post. 🙂 From my limited experience with le Carré, I totally agree with you that he transcended the spy genre.

      Liked by 2 people

  15. Wow. Great post. What I loved was seeing titles I had kind of forgotten. I remember loving Gorky Park and reading the follow ups but I had not thought of them or the character Renko in years. As for the Pilcher one, I once stood behind her at Tescos!! She lived js8ut outside Dundee.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Shehanne!

      I know what you mean about seeing titles one has kind of forgotten. A very nice feeling. 🙂

      I finally read “Gorky Park” and its seven sequels about three years ago. They were all indeed terrific. Martin Cruz Smith since wrote one more Arkady Renko novel: “The Siberian Dilemma,” which was a bit of a clunker, but Cruz Smith is getting older and I’ve read that he is unfortunately not in great health.

      You stood behind Rosamunde Pilcher? WOW!!! “The Shell Seekers” is a magnificent novel. And her “Winter Solstice” is excellent, too.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Lol… I did !! Cruz Smith? Aww.. I didn’t see that one. I guess these things happen but he certainly did good damned work in his time. I am sure some of these other books are still on the shelves here, i must have a look.

        Liked by 3 people

        • I believe he has Parkinson’s. 😦

          The first seven sequels after “Gorky Park” were almost as good as “GP.” Sustained excellence over several decades. As you know, Martin Cruz Smith really varied the story lines and settings — including placing one of the books in Cuba (“Havana Bay” of course). And, amid those sequels, he wrote some non-Arkady Renko novels — including the stellar “Rose,” set in 19th-century England.

          Liked by 3 people

          • I’ve read Rose. My Mr loved Cruz’s books and he bought that one and I read it in Spetses It was very different from his Renko ones. Again I’d forgotten I’d read it. I really enjoyed it. And he captured the entire time it was set so well. Often you read a book written by an author from another country and they make mistakes–word usage, for example, is a common one, but I remember thinking that this book gave me the entire scenario.

            Liked by 2 people

            • Great point about Martin Cruz Smith, Shehanne! He’s an American who “captured” the modern-day Soviet Union and Russia in his Arkady Renko novels and then “captured” something very different — 19th-century England — in “Rose.” I was also very impressed with how authentic he made the “Rose” setting seem, and of course you’re closer geographically so it’s good to hear you were impressed as well!

              Liked by 2 people

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