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.

6 thoughts on “Anne Tyler’s Appeal: Is Her Humor Generational?”

  1. So happy to see Anne Tyler appreciation. Her novels meant so much to me in my young adulthood, and more recently I adored A Spool of Blue Thread. I love escaping into the whimsical Baltimore of her imagination. She’s had an amazing career. Unfortunately, a lot of readers today seem to be looking for fictional characters to be virtue signalers, and Anne Tyler was always about presenting characters with personality flaws and quirks that made them unable to quite manage to do what they were supposed to. I love that her books are peopled with parents who fall short, spouses who walk out, liars, and mopes. Without those characters, Tyler would be saccharine.

    Like

    1. Tyler writes so beautifully and wittily. “Virtue signalling” MUST be the missing link between our response and some of her beliittlers, so thank you for giving me that word. What a terrible burden for them to be on the lookout for characters and stories that fit a narrow interpretation of reality. Of course most of us love, love, love Tyler! and these are doubtless a minority.

      On Sat, Jun 19, 2021 at 10:38 PM Thornfield Hall wrote:

      >

      Like

  2. I was the world’s biggest Anne Tyler fan for many, many years. Novels like ‘Searching for Caleb’ and ‘Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant’ were wonderful. There is a mysterious quality to her writing that is fascinating. I haven’t been quite as thrilled with her very recent work, but she must be in her 80s.

    Like

    1. Yes, she keeps writing, like so many of the American greats. Thank God for her books! I do want to go back and read “Homesick Restaurant.” And at least something good came out of the silly negative posts: it has renewed my interest in her work.

      On Sat, Jun 19, 2021 at 11:34 PM Thornfield Hall wrote:

      >

      Like

  3. I love her mix of sympathy and gentle irony. I think potentially one reason she is less frequently read is that today people seem to prefer action and plotting over deep characterizations. Tyler is right up there with Trollope and Barbara Pym for me when it comes to gentle humanity.

    Like

    1. I so agree with your comparisons, especially to Pym. Tyler’s writing is subtle and her character portraits are so true,. No action, though!

      Like

Comments are closed.