The 1970s Had Distinguished Novels Amid the Disco Din

(Photo credit: The Toni Morrison Society.)

When one thinks of the 1970s, what comes to mind are such things as Watergate, the latter part of the Vietnam War, disco music, Star Wars, and…a number of notable novels.

I’m going to mention about 30 of those books — most of which I’ve read — now that I’ve just finished Song of Solomon.

Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel is complex, nuanced, harrowing, occasionally funny, full of superb prose, socially conscious in its depiction of racism and sexism, and astute in dissecting a dysfunctional family. It also offers several of literature’s most memorable names for its memorable characters: protagonist Macon Dead (aka Milkman), his sister Corinthians, his aunt Pilate, his friend Guitar, etc.

Song of Solomon was Morrison’s third novel — following The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1973). 

Margaret Atwood began writing novels a year before Morrison did, with 1969’s The Edible Woman. She followed with the very good Surfacing (1972) and Lady Oracle (1976) before starting a run that would include various much-better-than-very-good works over the ensuing decades. 

Herman Wouk also had an ultra-successful 1970s with his lengthy tour de force novels The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978), both set during the WWII era.

In between those Wouk works was Alex Haley’s Roots, the saga of slavery and more that was widely read as a novel (1976) and then widely watched as a blockbuster TV miniseries (1977).

Meanwhile, Stephen King took the book world by storm with his debut novel Carrie (1974) — quickly followed by ‘Salem’s Lot (1975), The Shining (1977), The Stand (1978), and The Dead Zone (1979).

Joyce Carol Oates, an author I haven’t sampled much, also had quite a 1970s run — as did two novelists I’ve read several times: Margaret Drabble and Kurt Vonnegut.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez? I haven’t gotten to his The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975), but have read several of his excellent novels written in previous and subsequent decades. The first English-language edition of his 1967 masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude came out in…1970!

John Irving’s first major success was his quirky 1978 novel The World According to Garp. Soon after, Cormac McCarthy really hit his stride with the absorbing Suttree in 1979 — the same year of Octavia E. Butler’s searing time-travel classic Kindred.

The start of that half-century-ago decade saw the publication of another time-travel novel, Jack Finney’s haunting Time and Again (1970). Also arriving that year were Alice Walker’s first novel The Third Life of Grange Copeland and Erich Segal’s sappy but romantically readable Love Story. (I can’t believe I just put those two authors in the same sentence. 🙂 )

Other notable 1970s releases included William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971), Richard Adams’ Watership Down (1972), Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973), James Michener’s Centennial (1974), Peter Benchley’s Jaws (1974), Thomas Tryon’s Lady (1974), E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975), James Clavell’s Shogun (1975), Agatha Christie’s final mystery Curtain (1975), Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), Anne Rice’s debut novel Interview with the Vampire (1976), Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds (1977), William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice (1979), and Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979).

Any 1970s novels you’d like to name and discuss? I know I left out quite a few.

And here’s one of the most beautiful songs of the 1970s — 1972 to be exact:

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” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — containing more of my reaction to an appalling education-related opinion piece by a local leader — is here.

Parsing Protagonists With Psychological Problems

Shutterstock image.

When I wrote last week’s post about fictional characters with disabilities, I mostly focused on physical disabilities. But what about characters facing mental challenges — depression, autism, bipolar disorder, etc.? This post will focus on that.

I’ll first note that depression can be a sort of physical disability — a brain-chemistry thing. In other cases, people with so-called “normal” brain chemistry can feel deeply depressed when going through traumatic life experiences — death of a loved one, a severe personal illness, being in an abusive relationship, getting divorced, losing a job, having major money troubles, becoming the victim of a crime, dealing with virulent racism, and so on.

Earlier this month I read Paul Harding’s VERY well-written, almost unrelentingly downbeat 2009 novel Tinkers. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book stars George Crosby, who is close to death and of course greatly depressed about that. He begins hallucinating about his deceased parents, who we see were also quite morose because of their difficult lives — father Howard had a miserable, low-paying job as a peddler and suffered bouts of epilepsy, and mother Kathleen was extremely dissatisfied with her marriage and the overwhelming demands of parenting several children. 

An earlier Pulitzer-winning work, Harper Lee’s 1960 classic To Kill a Mockingbird, of course features the major supporting character Boo Radley — a recluse with a mental condition that today might perhaps be labeled autism.

There’s also John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, co-starring intellectually challenged migrant worker Lennie. His lack of understanding about certain things is pivotal to the story line.

War can of course do a number on people’s psyches. In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, World War I veteran Septimus Smith is suffering from “shell shock” — now often called post-traumatic stress syndrome. And one doesn’t have to have been a soldier to be mentally pummeled by war, as is the case with beleaguered widow, mother, and teacher Ida Mancuso in Else Morante’s novel History — set in Rome during World War II. Another riveting WWII-era novel, Erich Maria Remarque’s Arch of Triumph, includes the suicidal co-protagonist Joan Madou.

Among the many other fictional creations who attempt suicide or contemplate it are Edna Pontellier, who is not happy with marriage and the patriarchal order of things in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening; and Martin Eden, who’s depressed about his writing life in the Jack London novel that bears Martin’s name.

Then we have psychotic characters such as the terrifying Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and the dangerously crazed Annie Wilkes of Stephen King’s Misery.

There are also situations where a character is seen by authorities as having psychiatric issues, but do they really? Perhaps they’re just battered by life. One example of a protagonist in this situation is the impoverished Connie Ramos, who’s institutionalized during part of Marge Piercy’s sci-fi-ish novel Woman on the Edge of Time.

Speaking of institutionalization, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest famously has its characters in that setting.

Fictional people dealing with mental challenges can make for very dramatic, sobering, and relatable reading.

Any characters and novels you’d like to name that fit this theme? I’ve obviously only mentioned a few.

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” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about topics such as an appalling opinion piece by a local leader — is here.

A Look at Fictional Characters With Disabilities

Canadian novelist Joy Fielding (

This post combines new material with content from a post I wrote in 2012.

Characters in literature are compelling for various reasons, one of which can involve having a disability.

Of course, a disability is only one of a person’s many aspects. But, partly depending on the severity of the condition, it can be a very important aspect — helping to make the character admirable and/or inspirational and/or depressed and/or embittered and/or stoic, etc. It’s fascinating for readers to see how a disability affects a character’s psyche and actions, and readers who are not disabled might wonder what they’d do if they were in that situation themselves.

I recently read Joy Fielding’s excellent novel Still Life about a woman who seemingly “has it all” — happily married, good-looking, rich even before she starts a successful company, etc. — until she becomes comatose after being hit by a speeding SUV. Casey Marshall can’t move or see, but she can hear — and what she hears is shocking: the hit-and-run “accident” might have been deliberate, the various suspects include people she knows, and one of them wants to murder her before she has a chance to possibly recover. All told from Casey’s point of view. As the novel’s feverish suspense builds, will Casey in her grievous condition be able to do anything to try to save her life?

In the latest Jack Reacher novel, Better Off Dead, a major supporting character is U.S. Army veteran Michaela Fenton, who has a prosthetic leg. But she remains a force to be reckoned with — even managing to kill two bad guys in self-defense at the beginning of the Lee Child/Andrew Child book.

Lisa Genova often features characters with major physical or mental challenges. Her best-known novel is Still Alice, about a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Two other works of hers I’ve read are Inside the O’Briens, about a man with Huntington’s disease (the same condition that killed Woody Guthrie); and Left Neglected, about a woman who suffers a severe brain injury in a car crash. Genova is expert at not only showing how her characters attempt to cope with their devastating diseases but also at depicting the seismic effect on their families.

John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars features two young protagonists — Hazel and August — who fall in love as they deal with major medical challenges. An example of the totally obvious fact that romance is potentially for everyone.

Impaired protagonists of course don’t just appear in 21st-century novels. One example is Captain Ahab, who lost part of a leg to the big white whale of Herman Melville’s epic Moby-Dick. The result is a single-minded, almost crazed desire for revenge. 

The caustic personalities of two other fictional seamen — Long John Silver and Captain Hook — also weren’t mellowed by the loss of a leg and a hand, respectively. Silver is in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Hook in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.

Other disabled characters attract more of our sympathy. Among them is Joe Bonham in Dalton Trumbo’s searing antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun. As a soldier, Joe loses his arms, legs, and face in a horrific explosion, but retains all his mental faculties. Amid his despair, he comes up with an idea for how his life could have some meaning and…

In Heidi, a major secondary character is the wheelchair-bound girl Clara. Disabilities can of course be permanent or temporary, and Johanna Spyri’s classic novel addresses that in a memorable way.

There’s also Creb, the shaman in Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear who lost an arm and an eye during an attack by a…cave bear. 

In Alex Haley’s Roots, Kunta Kinte — renamed Toby Waller after he was enslaved — is brutally punished for trying to escape by having part of his foot chopped off. (If he had chosen the other punishment option, he wouldn’t have had descendants.) This heartbreaking scene symbolizes the survival skills African-Americans needed in a heartless system of servitude.

Also drawing our sympathy are “Mad-Eye” Moody in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and Quasimodo in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Moody exhibits an appealing swagger despite all the injuries his body has absorbed over the years, Tiny Tim is an invalid kid with an upbeat attitude, and Quasimodo — while having every reason to feel hateful because of the bad hand life dealt him — is capable of acting in a noble way.

Characters with disabilities can obviously be good people…or not. 

Rowling later created British private investigator Cormoran Strike for her series of five (and counting) crime novels. Strike lost part of his leg while in the military in Afghanistan, and the prosthetic replacement often gives him problems as he doggedly tries to solve mysteries with his detective agency partner Robin Ellacott.

There are also Colette’s autobiographical novels My Mother’s House and Sido, which are mostly about a memorable mother (Sido) but also feature a devoted father (“The Captain”) who lost a leg during his military career.

Literature features numerous other characters with disabilities, yet I’m guessing they’re underrepresented in fiction. The reasons for that include the discomfort some authors (and readers) might have with those characters, and the fear of non-disabled novelists that they might not depict physically challenged protagonists in an adequate, three-dimensional way.

Your favorite characters and novels that fit this blog post’s theme?

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” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about my town’s controversial, first-ever Board of Education election on March 8 — is here.

News Events Get Novelized

A sobering recent scene in Ukraine. (AFP via Getty Images.)

With Ukraine in the news, we know that the Russian invasion is appalling, that the carnage is dismaying, and that Ukrainian resistance is inspiring. We also know that many nonfiction books will eventually be written about the Putin-ordered attack — and that some future novels will incorporate the situation into their story lines.

It’s an interesting experience seeing major 21st-century events referenced in novels months or years after we followed those events in real time via the Internet, social media, TV, newspapers, and so on. We’re curious how novelists will depict things after time has passed, and how they will humanize the events via the characters they create. Also, our own memories will be stirred.

I recently finished Liane Moriarty’s compelling 2021 novel Apples Never Fall, which expertly mixes family dynamics with a mysterious disappearance. Near the end of the book, in the year 2020, the Australian characters experience the onset of COVID in their country. It’s hardly the main element of Apples Never Fall, but Moriarty makes it work. The very first novel I’ve read that includes the still-ongoing pandemic.

One part of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah focuses on when Democratic candidate Barack Obama becomes America’s first Black president in 2008. We interestingly see this through the eyes of an “outsider” protagonist: Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman living in the U.S. There is pride and hope felt by her and others, even as Obama would eventually disappoint some of them due to the combination of his not-as-liberal-as-expected politics and the vicious obstruction from right-wing Republicans.

Among the novels referencing 9/11 is Pete Hamill’s Forever (2003) — about an Irishman who arrives in New York City in 1740 and is still around when planes smash into the World Trade Center in 2001. (Yes, Cormac O’Connor is rather long-lived.) Readers get a fascinating perspective from a character who has obviously “seen it all” in Manhattan.

Then there’s The Kite Runner (also 2003), Khaled Hosseini’s novel that spans several decades in the late 20th century and early 2000s, with scenes in Afghanistan depicting the brutality of the Taliban via one man in particular. Afghanistan of course has a 9/11 relevance given that the U.S. sent troops into that country despite 15 of the 19 plane hijackers being Saudis (and none Afghans).

Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel Flight Behavior doesn’t focus on one 21st-century event per se but rather on sort of an ongoing event: worsening climate change. The devastating effects of that are seen through the eyes of characters Dellarobia Turnbow (a young Tennessean) and Ovid Byron (a visiting scientist).

The 21st century is also known for an ongoing development of a positive nature: the rapidly growing acceptance, in many places, of same-gender partnerships and marriage — much of that codified in various pieces of legislation. So, for instance, when we meet the couple Anna Phipps and Dr. Kim Sullivan in J.K. Rowling’s 2020 novel Troubled Blood, the very normality of their relationship is a given. We see Anna as a woman seeking answers about her mother’s long-ago murder; her sexual orientation is irrelevant.

Any novels you’d like to mention that incorporate real-life events of the 21st century? You can also go pre-2000 if you’d like, but I avoided that in my blog post to keep it fairly short. 🙂

Speaking of Ukraine and Russia, writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky was born in Kiev (aka Kyiv) in 1887 and died in Moscow in 1950. I’m currently reading a story collection of his titled Memories of the Future, and it’s compelling and weird and fantastical — a tiny room expanding, the Eiffel Tower tromping through Paris, characters becoming detached from novels, a beggar offering deep philosophical nuggets in return for small change, etc. Krzhizhanovsky’s wonderfully crafted fiction was sadly not published until decades after he died due to economic problems and Soviet censorship; his writing at times obliquely criticized the Soviet state under Stalin — or at least didn’t glorify it. Putin would not have liked Krzhizhanovsky, either.

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” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about local reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the end of local mask mandates, and more — is here.