Anne Tyler’s Appeal: Is Her Humor Generational?

I love book blogs – at least the better ones – and have discovered a number of engaging, feisty bloggers who know what they like and tell you vehemently.

I do not, however, agree with their reviews unconditionally. I have been puzzled by a recent trend of trashing Anne Tyler -who is surely one of the most charming of American writers. The word that comes to mind is “whimsical”: her books are set in a quirky Baltimore that exists in an imaginative territory somewhere between the subtle observations of Emily Dickinson and the exuberant wit of of Alison Lurie.

I have never known anyone in real life who dislikes Tyler. Some bloggers, however, are really worked-up. One announced that he/she loathed Tyler’s winsome novel, The Accidental Tourist, in which the hero, Macon, is a travel writer who hates travel. Another could not say enough negative things about Morgan’s Passing, which, if I recall correctly, begins with a puppeteer going into labor. What’s not to like?

I wondered, Is it a generational taste? Perhaps we are seeing the death of the individual in the 2020s. The Baby Boomers and Generation X grew up in a freer, more individualistic America, so Tyler’s portraits of eccentrics not also make us laugh but seem very real. Perhaps it is a question of lifestyle and upbringing: the majority of middle-class Baby Boomers’ mothers stayed home, or worked part-time, while the Gen X parents may have worked more hours but also gave their kids freedom: they were not afraid to let them go outdoors or walk to school – because the moms couldn’t wait to have time to themselves! (They also may have had common sense.) And thank God, no one forced us to play soccer. We may have played whiffle ball, but we also had leisure to read and read and read.

Millennials, for better or worse, are more team-oriented. They had less leisure growing up because their guilty, often divorced parents over-scheduled them. If they weren’t playing soccer (and I’m so sorry if you had to!), they were discouraged from reading for long stretches of time, making hollyhock dolls in the back yard, or building card houses, because Mom and Dad liked to see them on the go! They were also exposed to computers and cell phones at a much earlier age. (Does anyone remember that cell phones can cause brain cancer and you’re supposed to wear a headset? We have mass amnesia in this world.) And too much electronic stuff influences the way you think — too much Twitter upsets you and after a while you may even think it is real. It is the Millennial bloggers who have been trashing Tyler.

It is foolish to generalize about generations, though. Just like the Millennials, though no one says this, BabyBoomers and Gen X faced college debt, had low-paying jobs after graduation, and couldn’t afford to buy houses in their thirties. Anne Tyler knows this, and her characters, however odd they seem, learn to make peace with themselves and their fellow humans, and to change their own situations slightly.

Tyler won the Pulitzer Prize for Breathing Lessons, the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Accidental Tourist, and was nominated in 2020 for the Booker Prize for Redhead by the Side of the Road. My guess is that there are more Tyler fans than dissenters. But there is something disturbing about the hostility of the Tyler loathers. That’s the problem with the internet. We all need a breath of fresh air.