Anticipating late summer vacations filled with a journalist’s favorite pastime – reading – we asked our readers last week to nominate and vote for their favorite New Jersey authors. The result is a rich list of writers who have some key relation to the Garden State.
While we realize it’s not a very scientific ranking, the resulting list made us smile. The list is a great mix of classic and “serious” authors with those who create more popular fare. We also asked readers to tell us why they chose who they did, and included some of that thinking where appropriate.
Now that we’ve created this list, tell us what you think in the comments. Did we miss your favorites?
1. Judy Blume
This Elizabeth native began her writing career as a young mother living in Plainfield and Westfield. Judy Blume has since written nearly 30 books, most of which are aimed at children and adolescents. Known for her ability to tackle issues once thought too sensitive for children, they include the modern classics “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing,” “Blubber,” “Fudge,” “Freckle Juice” and “Deenie.” Blume was cited by our readers as helping them deal with real-life issues as an adolescent, as well as for the quality of her writing. As one noted, “Judy Blume is still like a first love you hold a torch for” and that, rereading her, she still “lives up to the legend.”
2. Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert’s blockbuster “Eat, Pray, Love,” is a memoir of her search for life’s meaning after a divorce. After finding love at the end of her quest, Gilbert settled in Frenchtown and opened an import store with her new husband. She continues to write. Her most recent best-seller, “The Signature of All Things” was published last August and was named a Best Book of 2013 by The New York Times, The New Yorker, O magazine and The Washington Post, among others.
Gilbert’s fans wrote in to tell us that they loved her honesty and openness, and the fact that she “puts her whole self out there” in a way that touches others lives.
3. Walt Whitman
Readers did not overlook the classics and voted Walt Whitman number three on our list. The author of “Leaves of Grass” and considered by many to be America’s greatest poet, he was born on Long Island and lived much of his adult life in Brooklyn. But he spent the last 18 years of his life in Camden, where he wrote three more editions of “Leaves of Grass.” One reader cited his choice of Whitman because “he taught us about the soul of America.” Another said his writings about the afflicted during the Civil War put him not “just in the pantheon of great writers but of great humans as well.”
4. Toni Morrison
The last American to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Toni Morrison taught writing and literature at Princeton University until retiring in 2006. Her best-known novels, such as “Beloved,” “Sula,” “The Bluest Eye” and “Song of Solomon,” focus on the African-American experience and slavery. Her stories offer detailed insight into her characters’ lives and, as one reader noted, she can “vividly paint a picture with words.” (http://www.tonimorrisonsociety.org/index.html)
5. Junot Diaz
Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey, Junot Diaz’ most celebrated book “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” depicts the immigrant experience in contemporary New Jersey. That book won both the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and the National Books Critics Circle award. His latest, “This is How You Lose Her,” was a National Book finalist. Diaz, a Rutgers graduate, has become for many the American voice of assimilating Latinos. As one reader wrote, “His writing is remarkable, contemporary and evocative of time and place.”
6. Philip Roth
Philip Roth is New Jersey’s – and in particular Newark’s – most celebrated home-grown writer. He is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, two-time winner of the National Book Award, two-time winner of the National Book Critics Circle award and three-time winner of the PEN/Faulkner award. Most of Roth’s books are set in Newark, where he was born and grew up. Now 81, Roth has been famous since his first novella, “Goodbye Columbus,” was published in 1959. Ten years later, he wrote “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and has since produced a trove of novels, many of which are on critic’s lists of America’s best. They include “American Pastoral,” “The Human Stain” and “The Plot Against America.”
7. William Carlos Williams
W.C. Williams, who worked for his entire life as a pediatrician in Rutherford, is considered by many to be one of America’s greatest poets of the 20th century. Considered a master of American modernism and the imagist approach to poetry, his most famous work is the book-length poem “Paterson,” featuring a mythical personification of the city and its famous falls. As one reader noted “He wrote an ode to Paterson. Need I say more?” Williams was also a mentor to the famous Beat poet and Paterson native Allen Ginsberg.
8. Joyce Carol Oates
If Roth is New Jersey’s most celebrated author, Joyce Carol Oates must be New Jersey’s most prolific literary achiever. Having published more than 40 novels, in addition to novellas, short story collections, and plays, Oates is known for her productivity as well as her many awards, including the National Book Award for “them,” the National Medal of Humanities, and several O. Henry awards. She even writes mystery novels under the pseudonyms Rosamund Smith and Lauren Kelly. Oates teaches literature and writing at Princeton. One of our voters said her works were among the most significant of the past century.
9. (tied) Amiri Baraka
Amiri Baraka, a Newark native who died early this year, was a poet, essayist and dramatist. The father of Newark mayor Ras Baraka, Amiri Baraka was known for his confrontational approach to race relations, as demonstrated in his writings. He is most well-known for his controversial poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” in which he hints that Israel was involved in the September 11 attacks, but his body of work is admired by many for its honesty, intensity and ability to shine a light on the African American experience.
9. (tied) George R.R. Martin
The author of “A Song of Fire and Ice,” an epic series of fantasy novels, which is being adapted for television as “Game of Thrones,” was born in Bayonne. The HBO series has won fans and brought huge celebrity to Martin, who is often compared to J.R.R. Tolkien. Readers said George R. R. Martin’s work is “amazing” and “the quality of his writing makes you empathize with his many characters, good or bad.”
9. (tied) John McPhee
Another Princetonian, John McPhee is considered a pioneer in literary nonfiction. He is particularly admired by environmentalists for “Coming Into the Country,” his book about the Alaska wilderness, “Control of Nature,” which is about the Mississippi, and several books on geology. One of them, “Annals of the Former World,” won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Several readers said they admired McPhee for teaching us about New Jersey and about physical America.
The next five authors on the list were, in order, Allen Ginsberg, Mary Higgins Clark, Janet Evanovich, Harlen Coben and James Fenimore Cooper.