I don't feel a kinship with many contemporary prose writers. I have many online poet friends, and I know many online prose writers, some of whom I feel, when I put on my "let's pretend I could be anything close to objective or definitive with an appraisal" hat, I consider to be "good" prose writers in some way, but with very few writers, particularly prose writers, do I feel a kinship.
There's Tao, Sam Pink, Richard Chiem, Frank Hinton, Ben Brooks, Timothy Willis Sanders, and beyond that I'm not sure.
I liked Zachary German's book, but I don't want to write like that book.
Beyond the online writing scene, as a reader of print books by non-online-lit people, I have very few contemporary favorites. Maybe none who are alive. The most recent authors, besides those mentioned above, who have impressed me, are David Foster Wallace and Roberto Bolano. I believe the hype is "justified" in both cases. Bolano impresses me more than Wallace, and I like his work a lot more. [Edit: I like Dennis Cooper. Forgot about Ryu Murakami and Michel Houellebecq; those bros are alive, right? I like both of them.]
Many writers that my peers or other people I see writing about literature online seem to admire, like Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, Gordon Lish, for example, do not immediately appeal to me (Lish's admiration of Beckett and Salinger endears him to me, but I've yet to read a book of his I liked a helluva lot; Didion is "on my shit list" for shit-talking Salinger back in the day; she seems cool, but I don't vibe with her writing/viewpoint, from what I've read).
I am not very well-read outside of Modernist literature of the 1920's/30's. I want to read more and I want to find many more authors to love, particularly post-1960, but I am the sort of person who doesn't want to buy a book, even from a used store, unless I am fairly confident I will like it. I commonly pick up a book, read through it a bit, and feel as if it will be a chore to read its prose or experience, so to speak, its narrative. Then I set the book back down.
A thing I have noticed about some earlier 20th-century classic authors: they are more appealing to me, more varied in tone and approach, and somehow surprising to me when I read them vis-a-vis my expectations from advance word/reputation. Some good examples are Chekhov, Beckett, and Kafka. I thought Chekhov was the patron saint of contemporary Realist authors who get published in the New Yorker, like Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahiri, or William Trevor. But when I read a collected Chekhov, there was way more playfulness, comedy, and seeming casualness than I had ever seen in contemporary Realist stories. Some Chekhov stories were like fun little vignettes, in a way I liked. All of the stories I read were more appealing than any Realist story I have read in the New Yorker from the last couple of decades.
I've written about Beckett before, but point is I thought he'd be a slog to read and instead he is hilarious, beautiful, dark, beautifully dark, beautifully hilarious and dark and beautiful, one of the most inspiring writers I've ever read.
Kafka's novels seem less appealing to me from paging through, but the stories I've read have been uncannily humorous, almost patient, almost incorrigible in their humor. Very uncanny and odd and nice. Kafka truly makes me lol.
Maybe the point I'm grasping for here is that I want authors to be surprising and exciting and do things you didn't think they would. Maybe it's harder to be truly zany and idiosyncratic and get published now, unless you're on a small press. And in the small-press/online-lit scene, there are some microtends/tendencies in experimental lit to which I don't feel attracted, I think, as well as a lot of more Realist fiction I'm not excited about.
Using 1960 as a marker, post-1960, there is a big drop-off in the number of writers I like.
I sent a query email to Dalkey Archive after college, asking to be a coffee-fetcher. Dalkey's publisher kindly responded, and eventually I got a phone interview with him and someone else on the staff. I failed the interview--maybe the only time I truly felt I had failed an interview--because they asked what books/authors did I like post-1960 and nothing/no-one came to mind.
I did not get the internship, but Dalkey's publisher kindly gave me a reading list. I took that list to the used bookstore and picked up a number of the books on the list.
That summer, I read some books I now consider favorites, like Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch, Djuna Barnes' Nightwood, and Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts. I also read some books I didn't like quite as much, though appreciated in some ways, like Second Skin by John Hawkes (I have since tried to read other Hawkes books, and it seems like Second Skin is the most immediately appealing to me of his books).
If anyone has recommendations, please leave them in the comments.
So far I have only really gotten into Burroughs, of the Beats. I like Burroughs quite a bit.
I like Henry Miller, but so far I haven't liked any of his books as much as Tropic of Cancer.
Have never read Vonnegut or Pynchon. Not particularly psyched to read either. Want to read Gaddis even though he seems like a self-serious misanthrope in a way I'm not sure I like.
Incomplete list of authors I have already read and liked:
Joyce, Beckett, Salinger, Cortazar, Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford (The Good Soldier), Jean Rhys (love Rhys' concision, form, style, and details she chooses, how her narrators are flawed and "very human" in ordinary-non-melodramatic-type ways), Roberto Bolano, Clarice Lispector, Reinaldo Arenas (The Color of Summer I read based on Dalkey bro's suggestion; there is a lot of gay sex in bathrooms in this book and it has some very beautiful prose at times), Chekhov, Kafka, Rilke, Djuna Barnes, Yukio Mishima, Ryu Murakami, et al
Feel like I'm an asshole or a snob. A lot of authors seem "fine, OK, whatever" to me, but I don't want to read them. I want to be excited to read someone. I want to feel cool reading someone, but to actually like the book, too. I want to feel like the author was trying to do something other than just "write a Literary Novel."
In other news, I cried twice reading Frank O'Hara the other day.