23 Contemporary Writers You Should Have Read by Now
In a fair world, these critically acclaimed authors would be rocking the bestseller list.
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The world of contemporary literature is always changing and it’s hard to know what books are worth the hype and what the buzz is all about—so we did the hard work for you. We’ve assembled 23 can’t-miss contemporary authors for when you’re looking for something new, wanting to catch-up on the latest good reads, or you’re just looking for something that you won’t want to put down.
At once daringly inventive and acutely aware of the human heart, Tuten can move seamlessly from magic realism to more traditional prose. Tuten’s novel The Adventures of Mao on the Long March is a modern classic (The New York Times called it “almost too good to be true,” when it was first published in the ’70s), and Walter Mosley is among his most devoted fans. In 2019, Tuten published his memoir My Young Life about growing up in New York and his early artistic endeavors which received an Editor’s Choice award from BOMB magazine as well as a number of rave reviews for its heart and sharpness. Start with: The Green Hour
As the recent recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant (MacArthur Fellowship) in 2019, Ocean Vuong is on the rise after his debut poetic novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, was an almost-instant New York Times Bestseller and shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal and the National Book Award for Fiction. The first novel from the Vietnamese-American poet is an epistolary non-linear narrative about adolescence, family, and immigration. His earlier poetry collection and later foray into epistolary poetic novel marks Vuong as one to watch with the Los Angeles Times calling Vuong’s work, “of sustained beauty and lyricism, earnest and relentless, a series of high notes that trembles exquisitely almost without break.”
Start with: Night Sky with Exit Wounds
Williams’ stories, in collections such as Excitability, are as far out on the cutting edge as you can get. The New York Times once called her, “a double-agent in the house of fiction.” Her 2018 anthology, The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, houses over three hundred previously published and new short stories and novellas with nearly 800 pages of rule-breaking fiction. The widely-anthologized author eschews chronology and just about every other narrative convention, yet her stories resonate powerfully because, on a deep, almost eerie level, they evoke the inner life. Start with: Vicky Swanky is a Beauty
Karen Tei Yamashita
Though Yamashita was a finalist for the National Book Award with I Hotel, which was all about San Francisco’s Asian community in the ’60s and ’70s, she hasn’t gained the broad recognition she richly deserves. In 2017, Yamashita published Letters to Memory, which is composed of archival material, family artifacts, and letters. The novel explores the period of Japanese internment with an epistolary and experimental style that the New York Times calls, “fluid and poetic as well as terrifying.” I Hotel is her sixth novel and one of her most ambitious works to date; this 640-page epic story is made up of interconnected novellas, all centered at the hotel where people, politics, ideals, and history come together. Start with: I Hotel
Evenson’s thrillingly unnerving books have won awards for mystery, horror, and literary fiction; this is work that’s scary on a deep level. Perhaps Peter Straub put it best: “Whenever I try to describe the resonant and disturbing literature that horror, whether acknowledged or not, lately has found itself capable of producing, I find myself alluding to Brian Evenson…[He] places himself furthest out on the sheerest, least sheltered narrative precipice—narrative at the far edge of narrative possibility…” Evenson is only picking up speed, receiving both the Guggenheim Fellowship and Shirley Jackson Award for The Warren in 2017.
Svoboda does it all: novels, stories, memoir, biography, poetry that pops up in the New Yorker from time to time, and even a libretto. Her work spans continents and an astonishing breadth of subject matter, including mermaids, pirates, conquistadors, and ghosts to American veterans (Black Glasses Like Clark Kent), cattle herders on the Nile, and a young woman seeking self-discovery (Bohemian Girl). With Svoboda, you can expect the unexpected—and a big heart beating under every surprising line. Start with: Trailer Girl and Other Stories, a mix of novella and stories.
Wickersham’s most recent book is The News from Spain, a refreshing, elegant exploration of real, grownup love, with all its complications, consolations, and imperfect beauty. Few people write about the emotion with this much honesty and intelligence. Her memoir, The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order, was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. If Wickersham has got you feeling lovesick, find out why we love who we love. Start with: The News from Spain
Montana-based Canty (Where the Money Went, Everything) has been rightfully compared to Richard Ford and Russell Banks. There’s a strong sense of place in Canty’s beautifully rendered novels and stories, but his work goes far beyond any notion of regionalism. The Underworld: A Novel deals with a Idaho mining town fire disaster and fictionalizes the aftermath for a number of real and imagined survivors inspired by true stories of loss and perseverance. His talents involve taking dark subjects such as divorce and mortality, suffusing them with wit and empathy, and arriving at unexpected, believable redemption. Start with: Everything
Stern, who draws inspiration from Yiddish folklore, is a master of the rollicking good tale. He’s been called the successor of Isaac Bashevis Singer, but his exhilarating narratives—many of them set in the American South!—are entirely original. The Book of Mischief and his latest, The Pinch, are both a treat for anyone who enjoys magic, mayhem and an invigorating investigation of life’s mysteries. Speaking of folklore and tradition, see which ways people used to use folklore to predict the weather. Start with: The Book of Mischief
McMillan, back in 1987 when she published her first book, Mama, was so dissatisfied with her publisher’s handling that she took it upon herself to publicize and sell her book (dealing with motherhood, pride, abuse, and despair) herself. Just the characters in her books, McMillan demands your attention and respect. With multiple film adaptions and the New York Times bestseller list picks, McMillan’s novels tell crucial stories about identity, Blackness, relationships, and growth in acclaimed novels such as Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Start with: Waiting to Exhale
Schutt, who was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for her novel All Souls and a finalist for the National Book Award for her novel Florida, is known both for her gorgeous prose and for her fierce insights into marriage, money, class, and desire. She’s also an innovative stylist—an original you will want to read and re-read. Her most recent is 2018’s Pure Hollywood: And Other Stories. If you’re after Hollywood style, try these tips Audrey Hepburn-approved tips. Start with: All Souls
Miller is both a fresh new voice and a wise old soul. Her debut novel, The Last Days of California (following a well-received story collection, Big World) is a road trip novel written from a teenager’s perspective; it’s a funny, moving, and piquant look at American culture. Her Always Happy Hour takes a simultaneously hopeful and tragic tone as it explores relationships and sympathizes with characters searching for belonging and love in unconventional places. Miller is a writer poised make her presence felt for a long time. Start with: The Last Days of California
Kazuo Ishiguro uses dystopian themes and plot as a playground to make scathing political and social commentary that reads like riveting fiction. His Never Let Me Go follows characters who do not, or perhaps cannot, understand themselves or their role in society as they are forced into competitive creativity and away from unhealthy activates; this novel is a horrifying look at the future of medical science and diminished humanity. Among a long list of accolades for his novels (such as When We Were Orphans), short stories, and screenplays are his acceptance of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature and his Knight Bachelor status awarded in 2018. Start with: Never Let Me Go
One could say that Redel alternates between prose (five books, most recently Before Everything and Make Me Do Things) and poetry (three), but that’s not quite it since her fiction is suffused with one gorgeously poetic line after another. Her highly anticipated Before Everything is a bittersweet look at female friendship, stages of life, and hope that Publisher’s Weekly called “an unflinching and affecting look at how one woman’s final days change the lives of those around her.” Redel is a great storyteller—her novel Loverboy was made into a movie starring Kyra Sedgwick—and has the ability to make every sentence shimmer. Start with: The Border of Truth
Kimball’s books have been translated into a dozen languages, and he always seems this close to attracting the wide audience he deserves in the United States. His strongest novel, Big Ray, is an unflinching portrait of an abusive father whose death the narrator still grieves; it’s not what you’d call an easy read, but it is a transformative one. Kimball’s language is so deceptively simple that you don’t always see him creeping up on you with profound truths. Start with: Big Ray
Greengrass published her debut novel, Sight, in 2018 while pregnant with her second child. Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Sight is a woven narrative of pregnancy, motherhood, medical advances, and Freudian psychoanalysis that the New Yorker called, “A dazzling obsessive entry in a burgeoning genre…the novel as a whole exudes a strange, consoling power.” Jessie Greengrass is one to watch and her website claims she is working on another novel. While you read how Greengrass reflects on her own mother and motherhood with such grace, do you still need a little reminder to call your mom? Start with: Sight
Paule Marshall’s novels, like Brown Girl, Brownstones, and Praisesong for the Widow are considered groundbreaking works of African-American literature, but they should be required reading for everyone. Marshall, who was mentored by Langston Hughes, writes with passion and precision about immigrants from the Caribbean. Though she passed away in 2019, her novels continue to inspire and impact readers and have recently been met with renewed interest. While highly accredited and well-received in her time, she also graced readers with memorable quips such as “I realize that it is fashionable now to dismiss the traditional novel as something of an anachronism, but to me it is still a vital form.” Start with: Brown Girl, Brownstones
Everyone who has the good fortune to pick up one of Erens’ three novels becomes a fan. Whether writing about teenagers at boarding school (The Virgins), two mothers struggling together through labor (Eleven Hours), or a loner at the end of his tether (The Understory), Erens has a gift for making you want to spend time in her characters’ company. Then you want to scout her other fans to discuss your good fortune of discovering her talents. If you’re looking for other standouts in the literary world, try these handpicked debut novels of the past 50 years. Start with: The Understory
As an associate professor of writing at Columbia University, a staff critic and writer for the New Yorker, and a former writer for the Village Voice, Als has a long history of literary interaction and rich life experiences to propel his writing. Als’ debut memoir, The Women, is an uncompromising “psychological study, a sociopolitical manifesto, and an incisive adventure in literary criticism,” that paints in-depth portraits of lovers, mentors, and Als’ own mother. His work revolves around ideas of sexuality, culture, identity, and race without coming up for air. The amazing impact of his latest work, White Girls, was summed up succinctly by The Chicago Tribune: “This book will change you.” Start with: The Women
While Brown’s latest achievement is the 2020 Pultizer Prize for Poetry (for The Tradition), his poetry career has been making waves since the early 2000s. His lyricism, intimacy, and precision marks Brown as a strong political poet with intersections of sexuality, race, and humanity with every poem. Claudia Rankin, in response to his earlier collection The New Testament, even went as far as to say “to read Jericho Brown’s poems is to encounter devastating genius.” Start with: The New Testament
Maggie Nelson, a MacArthur Fellow, is hard to place within the literary canon. Her work span the genres of creative nonfiction, poetry, scholarship, theory, criticism, and perhaps others as she continues to create thought-provoking work. Her latest book, The Argonauts, is called an “autotheory” as it contends with concepts of identity, gender, connection, and sexuality. In her popular book of theory (The Art of Cruelty) and her breath-taking poetic novels dealing with her aunt’s untimely murder and its surrounding mystery (Jane: A Murder, The Red Parts), Nelson’s work takes on multiple dimensions and combines art and scholarship to create something beautiful and fresh. If you love novels inspired by true stories, check out these 8 famous books that might surprise you. Start with: Jane: A Murder
Gaitskill’s strength is in her candor and unflinching look at topics that might at first seem taboo or overtly personal. Her novel Two Girls, Fat and Thin keenly tackles some of the darker topics of femininity, sexuality, friendship, and selfishness in an atypical coming-of-age story. In both Gaitskill’s collections of short stories from 2012, Because They Wanted To, and her latest This is Pleasure, she tells intimate stories that at times reflect harshly, yet honestly, on her subjects. This is Pleasure uses the lens of the #MeToo movement to take a stab at the ideas of blame, forgiveness, judgment, and subjectivity in ways that are both surprising and thought-provoking. Start with: Because They Wanted To
As if being the first immigrant, Latino, openly-gay United States Inaugural Poet wasn’t groundbreaking enough, Richard Blanco was also the youngest inaugural poet when he read at former President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. Blanco’s poetry is often commissioned or written in times of either great happiness or great duress as a unifying voice that adeptly navigates cultural identity, sexuality, patriotism, hope, and the human condition. His Directions to the Beach of the Dead and Looking for The Gulf Motel are both emotional can’t-miss collections for anyone interested in birth, death, and navigating the world in-between. Also, if the political world has you blue, don’t miss these political jokes to lighten your spirits. Start with: Directions to the Beach of the Dead