History may like to remember the 1970s as gloomy, but it was also a decade of fascinating social and cultural change. From Toni Morrison to Thomas Pynchon, Germaine Greer to Robert Persig, here are the authors who captured it best.
History may like to remember the 1970s as gloomy, but it was also a decade of fascinating social and cultural change. From Toni Morrison to Thomas Pynchon, Germaine Greer to Robert Persig, here are the authors who captured it best.
By the 1970s, the times, they really were a-changing. While hippy culture had all but run aground, the hedonistic counterculture that defined the 1960s had launched a seemingly unstoppable wave of political awareness around race, sexuality, the environment and the economic liberty of women.
But at the same time, the cold hand of reality was beckoning, and people were beginning to wonder, “So where, really, do we go from here?” For many, it felt like a sort of breathing space between the heady drama of the 1960s and whatever on Earth was around the next corner.
As such, the 1970s became a decade of intense cultural self-reflection. And, as always, there were writers aplenty ready in the wings to throw their pennies into the conversation. So here, from Toni Morrison to Thomas Pynchon, Germaine Greer to Robert Persig, are 20 of the best books that reflected what Tom Wolfe famously dubbed the "Me" decade.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (1970)
She won the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize and is one the most celebrated American novelists of all time. And The Bluest Eye is where it all began for Toni Morrison.
It tells the tragic story of Pecola, a young Black girl haunted by the low self-esteem imposed on her by a society in which she is dismissed as ugly and unworthy. She has an abusive family, and bullying classmates. All she has is a dream: that someone, one day, will grant her the gift of blue eyes so she won't feel ugly. Of course, she is anything but ugly, just a victim of the standards of her time.
It would take a couple more novels for Morrison, who was working as an editor at Random House at the time, to achieve a mainstream platform as an author. But The Bluest Eye nevertheless beat a new path through the forest of American literature, by placing young Black girls at the centre of the story and establishing the voice of one of the great prose stylists of modern literature.
The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer (1970)
Feminist publishing started with a bang in the Seventies: in October 1970, a 31-year-old Australian academic (and, increasingly, familiar face on television) named Germaine Greer released The Female Eunuch.
While feminism had started to take hold during the Swinging Sixties, the majority of Middle England still expected women to exist in the kitchen, dishing up dinners and raising children rather than having a career. Women couldn’t own a mortgage or a car, without the signature of their father or husband.
The Female Eunuch exploded this picture of suburban settlement, arguing that the nuclear family, complete with submissive housewife, repressed women’s sexuality to such an extent that they effectively became eunuchs. The book was phenomenally successful, nearly selling out its second print run within five months. While critics dismissed The Female Eunuch as “fatally naive”, among other things, it nevertheless defined the brand of feminism that Greer unleashed: riotous, furious and unafraid of conflict.
Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Bloom (1970)
YA fiction may seem like a contemporary phenomenon: even millennials may argue that they were well into their Twenties when phenomena such as Twilight and The Hunger Games came along. But before that we had Judy Blume, who was truly revolutionary when she started writing about topics including sex, birth control, masturbation and grief for teenagers in the late Sixties.
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret was Blume’s third book – and the one that catapulted her to recognition. The titular Margaret is 11, desperate for puberty to arrive and confused about what her parents’ interfaith marriage means for her own beliefs.
But also the more relatable things: the all-consuming trial of buying one’s first bra, having a period and fancying boys in class. No wonder Time magazine declared that Blume “turned millions of pre-teens into readers”.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1970, English translation)
This, simply, is the story of seven generations of the Buendía family and their rule over the Columbian town of Macondo, which they built. Less simple is the plot, which leaps and weaves through wars, rigged elections, revolutions, disasters, love affairs, assassinations, spirit journeys, miracles and ghostly apparitions.
From the moment it came out in English (three years after its Spanish debut) the world knew something special had fallen from the mind of a genius.
“One Hundred Years of Solitude is the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race," the Pulitzer-winning writer William Kennedy wrote in the New York Times Book Review. "Mr. García Márquez has done nothing less than to create in the reader a sense of all that is profound, meaningful, and meaningless in life.”
It trod the line between fantasy and reality in a way few books had done before, paving the runway for the genre of magical realism to take flight, and making Gabriel Garcia Marquez a global celebrity.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson (1972)
In March 1971, Hunter S. Thompson packed a briefcase with enough drugs to down an elephant and headed to Las Vegas to cover the Mint 400 desert race for Sports Illustrated. But the trip swiftly became less about car racing than, in his words, “a savage journey into the heart of the American dream.”
When Thompson filed the 2,500-word piece to his paymasters, they rejected it out of hand. So he offered it to Rolling Stone... and they instantly sent him back to the gambling mecca for more. The results were far more exhilarating than any car race. And a hell of a lot funnier.
The book made him a household name. In its review at the time, The New York Times called it “a custom-crafted study of paranoia, a spew from the 1960s and – in all its hysteria, insolence, insult and rot – a desperate and important book, a wired nightmare, the funniest piece of American prose."
It was the book that launched gonzo journalism – a style of reportage that, rather than remove the writer from the story, puts him at its centre. Through that, the profane, hyperactive drug fiend changed journalism forever.
(Sidenote: Thompson would write for Rolling Stone for 35 years. And you can read the best of that work in Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone, left)
The Joy of Sex by Alex Comfort (1972)
Sexual intercourse didn't begin in 1963, as Philip Larkin famously larked in the poem 'Annus Mirabilis'. Good gracious no. What we know of sex today began nine long years after that with the publication of Alex Comfort's “gourmet guide to lovemaking”.
It was, in effect, a sex manual for people who wanted to make love, not war, throbbing with graphic descriptions of sexual positions, each demonstrated by vivid illustrations of a bearded man and his valentine engaged in all manner of corporeal entanglements.
Part of its sensational appeal was its humour, riffing masterfully on the cookbook style, including chapters like ''Starters,'' ''Main Courses'' and ''Sauces and Pickles.'' But its advice, too, raised more than just eyebrows. “Never fool around sexually with vacuum cleaners,” it wisely counselled, tongue only half in cheek.
The world lapped it up, and it became – as The New York Times put it – “the coffee-table Kama Sutra of the baby-boom generation". Twelve million copies sold, it was a radical text that revolutionised the sex life of 1970s suburbia.
Fear of Flying by Erica Jong (1973)
More than any other book of its time, this was the one that changed the way the western world thought – and talked – about sex. It follows a young female erotic poet called Isadora Wing who, bored with her second marriage, ditches her husband at a psychoanalysts' conference in Vienna to travel through Europe in search of herself, and great no-strings sex. The only thing holding her back: a crippling fear of flying.
A big part of the push towards second wave feminism in 1970s, Erica Jong's witty and quiveringly explicit account of Isadora's escapades, according to The New York Times, '"lectrified and titillated the critical establishment".
Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (1973)
It's an easy argument: Gravity's Rainbow is unequivocally one of the greatest American novels ever written. It's also one of the weirdest, wildest and most controversial. It caused such outrage – not least for its frank accounts of coprophagia (that's.. well, look it up), sex and drug use – that the Pulitzer trustees were moved to cancel the prize rather than let him run away with it in 1972 (which he was about to do).
It's impossible to distil the Thomas Pynchon's oceanic storyline into an essence, but suffice to say, it's a hair-raising ride though a dense jungle of sex, drugs, psychology, physics, chemistry, rockets, history, paranoia (in all its permutations), war, religion, more sex, more drugs, death, entropy and a whole lot more.
But don't just take my list of nouns, take another, from The New York Times' 1973 review: “Gravity’s Rainbow is bonecrushingly dense, compulsively elaborate, silly, obscene, funny, tragic, pastoral, historical, philosophical, poetic, grindingly dull, inspired, horrific, cold, bloated, beached and blasted.” Which is to say, it is a towering masterpiece that redefined what a novel can do.
The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis (1973)
This award-winning novel tells the story of an angst-ridden late-teen super ego called Charles Highway as he preps for his Oxford University exams. Actually, his exams are more of a sideline. His real ambition is to get an older woman into bed before he turns 20. That's where Rachel comes in.
Charles is not a likeable chap – a garrulous, arrogant late adolescent, all crotch and armpits, and precious little going for him in the seduction department. And yet, he gets laid. Quite a lot, actually, and very graphically. Even with Rachel, who – as you'd expect – ultimately cannot live up to his mighty expectations. “Like most people,” he says, “I feel ambiguous guilt for my inferiors, ambiguous envy for my superiors, and mandatory low-spirits about the system itself.”
But the book became a hit in England for its unflinching – and often hilarious – portrayal of teenage angst. Just as J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye had done in America, Martin Amis' novel (who was just 23 at the time) was a satirical rampage against over-sentimentalisation of youth, providing a fresh and foul-mouthed approach to how teenage angst was portrayed in literature, while launching the career of Britain's most outspoken and controversial novelist.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Persig (1974)
Robert Persig's philosophical masterpiece was rejected 126 times before he finally got it published. Perhaps that's why, in his intro, he told readers not to take his title too literally: "It should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It's not very factual on motorcycles, either."
That cleared that up, and the book – about the road trip of a father and son across the western United States – became an instant bestseller, selling a million copies in its first year, and many millions more after that.
Aside from a sweet father-and-son story, it is a profound and personal meditation on how to live, deep diving into the big philosophical questions of post-hippy America of the 1970s. Counterculture was over and free-sex flower power was starting to feel a bit self-indulgent; not a viable long-term plan. For Persig, the world needed someone to “resolve the conflict between classic values that create machinery, such as a motorcycle, and romantic values, such as experiencing the beauty of a country road”
And Zen..., according to Pirsig's New York Times 2017 obituary, was “perfectly timed for a generation weary of the ’60s revolt against a soulless high-tech world dominated by a corporate and military-industrial order.” It was time to grow up, and move on. And this was the book that captured that mood.
Roots by Alex Haley (1976)
“It was the story of our people,” the civil rights leader Benjamin Hooks told The LA Times after Haley's death in 1999. “It was the story of how we came from Africa.”
Roots tells the semi-fictional story of Kunta Kinte, kidnapped from his African village to become a plantation slave in Virginia, then a soldier in the American civil war. Meticulously researched and viscerally worded, it goes on to tell many more stories of Kinte's descendants, all the way down to Haley himself.
It won a Pulitzer Prize, remained at the top of the New York Times Bestseller list for 22 weeks and, by 1977, had sold more than six million copies. “The world's first genuine black Westerner's … hour may, at last, and in mysterious, unprecedented ways, have begun to strike,” gushed James Baldwin in his blistering 1976 New York Times review. “Certainly a bell is tolling now for all that the Western peoples imagined would last forever.”
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (1976)
Before The Handmaid's Tale, there was Woman on the Edge of Time. Now considered a classic of feminist speculative fiction, the novel tells the story of Connie Ramos, a Mexican-American woman who finds herself unjustly locked in a cruel mental asylum with no hope of release.
All seems lost until she is visited by a woman from 2137 who takes her on a journey to two possible futures. The first is heavenly utopia devoid of inequality – no sexism, no racism, no rich or poor; a place of love, liberty and environmental harmony. The other is almost the exact opposite; a shocking dystopia where capitalism is God, consumerism is His wicked henchman and society is riven along almost every line imaginable.
Covering issues such as abortion, free will, and women's rights, Marge Piercy tapped into a moment where the world was getting realistic about what it thought it could be. Second wave feminism was in full swing, and 1960s counterculture was out of breath. Here was a book that helped (alongside others such as Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed) launch a new way of thinking about the world, and the viable options that lay ahead.
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? By Raymond Carver (1976)
There are two kinds of short stories: the ones written before Raymond Carver first sat down at a typewriter, and the ones written after. Not only was he one of the most influential fiction writers to emerge from the 1970s, but he near single-handedly blazed the trail for minimalist short story writing in the decades since.
Few authors have nailed how people actually communicate in the real world better than Carver, while his unique alchemy of wisdom, humour, and pruned-down prose captured the everyday indignities of working-class life in America.
Nowhere is his skill better demonstrated than in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? – whose themes range from insomnia to obesity, shattered love affairs to marriage, poverty to the pains of alcoholism (Carver is also one of the most famous boozehounds in literature, an affliction he finally overcame in 1977).
It launched a career that would make him, as Stephen King put it, “the most influential writer of American short stories in the second half of the 20th century.”
The Shining by Stephen King (1977)
The 1970s were arguably Stephen King's ripest decade. It was the period he wrote Carrie, Salem's Lot, Rage, The Stand and Dead Zone. But if there is one novel so entrenched in the cultural landscape that most people know the story whether they've read it or not, it's The Shining (partly, but by no means exclusively, thanks to Stanley Kubrick's mind-melting movie adaptation).
As if you really need a synopsis, it's about a man who takes a job as a caretaker at a remote hotel for the winter. He brings his wife and son for the season with hopes of finishing his novel, breaking his alcoholism and fixing his family's issues. Only, in the hotel's vast emptiness, he slides hopelessly into murderous insanity as reality and fantasy bleed into one.
It has become one of the most popular and enduring horror stories of all time, and would set the tone for a writer who has by now had more books adapted or optioned than any other living author. (side note: King hated Kubrick's movie, once describing it as like “a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it.”)
The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan (1978)
When four children are abruptly orphaned by the deaths of their parents, they go feral. But first they must dispose of mum's body. Luckily, they have a cement garden out back. Cadaver shifted, the four retreat into a world of their own making. Shut off from the outside world and with a moral compass in free-spin, they descend deeper into depravity, infantilism and madness.
The New York Review of Books branded it “morbid, full of repellent imagery – and irresistibly readable.” The Spectator said it was “just about perfect”. And the Times Literary Supplement said it “should consolidate Ian McEwan’s reputation as one of the best young writers in Britain today”
It did. The book was a smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic, not only launching McEwan's novelist career, but also earning him the nickname “Ian McAbre”.
"It was the late 70s," McEwan told The Guardian in 2014. "Everyone seemed focused on a sense that we were always at the end of things, that it was all collapsing. London was filthy, semi-functional. The phones didn't work properly, the tube was a nightmare, but no one complained. It fed into a rather apocalyptic sense of things."
The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch (1978)
This Booker-winning novel follows a grumpy, self-satisfied theatre director who cashes in his glamorous London life to buy a remote cottage on a bleak, windswept coastline. His name is Charles Arrowby and his plan is to "become a hermit” and "to repent of a life of egoism."
Trouble is, Arrowby is irredeemably self-centred. He lives alone, railing against his misfortunes, swimming in a hostile sea, while cooking some of the most hideous meals ever described in fiction. As a series of blasts from his past – old friends and ex-lovers – interrupt his peace, they remind him – and us – what a terrible old git he really is. Then, by sheer coincidence, he discovers that his childhood sweetheart is living, happily married, in a house nearby. So he contrives to win her back, by hook or by crook, with disastrous, and hilarious, consequences.
Iris Murdoch had already been nominated for the Booker Prize three times by the time she published The Sea, the Sea. And with this masterful satire on the pomposity of London's showbiz scene, she finally won it. It was the book that would prove the cherry on the cake of a career that made her one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.
The World According to Garp by John Irving (1978)
By the mid-70s, Monty Python were setting the gold standard for subversive comedy on both sides of the Atlantic. But that was on TV. Then, in 1978, literature got The World According to Garp.
It is the story of the life – and times – of T. S. Garp, the illegitimate son of a feminist leader who rapes a mentally infirm soldier to have a baby by herself.
The story is Dickensian in scope, charting Garp's life from cradle to grave, as a menagerie of wacky characters – a former football star turned transgender activist, murderers, wrestlers, fortune tellers, cult members, and a unicycling bear to name a few – drift in and out of his life.
For most readers of the time, it was hilarious. For many, it was their first exposure to an openly trans character and an openly asexual character in fiction, and the first book that confronted toxic masculinity and sexual violence head-on. It was a feminist novel written by a man, and, in John Irving's own words, “an ode to the women’s movement” that was taking shape at the time.
Since then, it has sold more than seven million copies, and remains as relevant to today's divided society as it did in 1978. As Irving wrote in his new foreword in 2018, “In the early and mid-1970s, when I was writing Garp, I thought my country would never be as divided again as it was then. I was wrong.”
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (1979)
If the Seventies was a decade of feminist politics and identity, Angela Carter’s take was ahead of its time. The brilliantly unconventional British author spent the decade variously upsetting members of the Second Wave elite: Angela Dworkin was horrified by her non-fiction book, The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (1979) while The Passion of New Eve (1977) shared the far more progressive attitudes around gender that are still debated in the trans rights battle today.
Enter, then, The Bloody Chamber, which took these bold ideas on sexuality, female pleasure and agency, and folded them into a series of stories inspired by folk tales and their later adaption into fairytales.It may sound niche, but it proved a catapult for Carter, whose star was already rising.
The book entered near-immediately onto syllabi and academic reading lists, where it has remained ever since, inspiring countless authors and our contemporary reframing of fairytales. As Anne Enright says, ‘the makers of Frozen should have put Carter’s name in the credits’
Sophie's Choice by William Styron (1979)
You know a book has made a splash when it's title inveigles its way into the cultural lexicon. But it's an easy choice for any list of influential books of the Seventies.
Set in Brooklyn in 1947, Sophie's Choice describes the relationship between the narrator Stingo and two doomed lovers – a brilliant but paranoid-schizophrenic American-Jew named Nathan and a beautiful Polish Catholic called Sophie.
As Stingo is drawn into the couple's stormy relationship as a friend and confidant, he gradually learns about Sophie's past as a survivor of Auschwitz. And then, the unimaginable “choice” she was forced to make over which of her two small children will go to the gas chamber and which will be given the chance to live.
It generated some controversy upon publication for telling a story of the Holocaust that did not focus solely on the Jewish experience, but also on the other victims of Nazi evil, enabling readers, according to the literary scholar Morris Dickstein,”to see the Holocaust as a universal story, not strictly a Jewish one” (in 2002, however, William Styron received the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation's Witness to Justice Award).
A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)
Arguably one of the most famous science fiction books ever written, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a weapons-grade satire, riddled with metaphors, mainly for humanity’s failings. And at the time it was written, it broke through a new frontier for fiction by cleverly blending two genres: science fiction and comedy. Science fiction, until Douglas Adams, had been serious stuff.
In an electron shell, it’s about a man called Arthur Dent and his alien friend Ford Prefect who wander the galaxy after the Earth is blown up to make way for a hyperspace bypass. They meet various characters along the way, including a manically depressed robot who saves their lives by striking up a casual conversation with the enemy spaceship’s computer and unintentionally talking it into depression and then suicide.
A radio play before it became a book, it is weird and wacky and a work of prescient genius, from one of the most extraordinary imaginations ever to be committed to paper. “He saw things differently,” said Neil Gaiman in 2015, “and he was capable of communicating the way he saw things, and once he explained things the way he saw them, it was almost impossible to see them the way you used to see them.”
From the fantastical gobblefunk of Roald Dahl to Malorie Blackman's game-changing dystopias, celebrate World Book Day with stories that will inspire a love of reading in children of all ages.
Recommended reading for anyone in your life who want to understand more about the challenges facing society today and really make a difference, from Greta Thunberg to Ibram X. Kendi.