A collection lays Beattie's career bare

Ann Beattie says she’s not a curious person. But when she came across a 600-page book by the feminist literary critic Elaine Showalter, called A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, she naturally flipped through to see if her name appears. It does, once, next to a staggering statistic: Forty-eight of her stories have appeared in The New Yorker since 1974. “That was where I found out,” says Beattie, “because I don’t go around keeping notches in my belt, that I had had so many stories in such a short period published in The New Yorker.”

The 48 stories that Ann Beattie, who teaches at UVA, published in The New Yorker are collected in a new hardcover volume that serves as an invitation to reflect on her long career.

At 62, Beattie, who teaches at UVA, is at a point in her career where on top of being a writer, there is also the work of establishing a legacy. To that end, last week saw the release of Ann Beattie: The New Yorker Stories, which summarizes a career in short fiction whose highs have been played out in the pages of that magazine. In the best of her stories, Beattie’s minimal style belies the emotional intensity in the lives of the mysterious, often stoned characters she used to explore her generation. (She’s even got her own adjective: Beattie-esque.)

Where some writers might start popping the champagne on the occasion of being so lovingly anthologized, The New Yorker Stories has laid bare Beattie’s career. The problem—or so go some of the book’s reviews—is that the sentiments that enraptured readers of the 1970s and ’80s have proven ephemeral. Beattie summed up the grievances levied against her in the New York Times Book Review: “I liked her when she was writing these stories because she was very funny. Then there was a time when she wasn’t funny, so she wasn’t good. Her new stories are very serious, and since they aren’t funny it’s very hard to like them,” she says. “What kind of reasoning is that?” 

The most recent critical touchstone is a novella from earlier this year, Walks With Men, about a driven, if confused, woman in the 1980s who gets involved with a man twice her age. Its cover shows the artfully-lit back of a thin woman in a saggy, fashionable top, and looked like an advertisement for a hip clothing brand for youngsters; it was intended to appeal to younger women who may not have read Beattie’s work. At the time, the New York Times weighed in with a brief profile with a snide headline: “Ann Beattie, Reliving a Time of Fame.” 

She figures that it is all part of the backlash that awaits any writer who enters the game too early and sticks around too long. (Although, she admits, there are exceptions to that rule.) “I think if you enter late, like Annie Proulx—she was writing journalism for local magazines and turned to fiction when she was older—I think there is an accommodation made for you. Don’t do what I did if you want to be a keeper, and do it when you’re 25.”

“I’ve never known what to do with the argument that all publicity is good publicity,” she says. “As a human, I don’t know what to do with that.” But in her nearly four decades of work, plenty of the publicity has been good. And her career may take a turn when Beattie comes out with a historical novel about another character who has been marginalized by history: First Lady Pat Nixon, who is among the few presidential wives who did not write her White House memoirs, and who “didn’t speak for herself except in the most formulaic or predictable way,” says Beattie. “She was hugely patriotic, but any of us who listen to people who are patriotic kind of glaze over after a while if you have no new approach to patriotism, or no new insights in your personal patriotism. That can sound like a canned speech. It wasn’t, and yet it gives you almost nothing.”

The way Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead provided new insights into Hamlet, so too does that opportunity exist with Mrs. Nixon in her husband’s tumultuous time in the White House. “She was kind of a specter of my childhood. She was everything I didn’t identify with and didn’t want to become. How strange, even to me, that I find myself as someone who is fascinated by what she represents.”

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