Image: Penguin

Ryan MacEachern / Penguin Books

Hold your boombox in the air for the 1980s... surely the most photogenic decade in history.

It was the decade 24-hour news was born and the Cold War died. The decade Diana became a princess, Prince Rogers Nelson became just Prince; greed got good (for a while) and poverty got worse. There was a Very Important war over an island somewhere near Argentina, and a pop concert to relieve a famine in Africa.

How could anyone forget Top Gun, The Smiths, Dallas, MTV, yuppies, powersuits, IBM and Rubik's Cubes? It was the decade Millenials were born, just as Mr. T pitied his first fool. 

History has not forgotten Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev or Michael Jackson, either. Nor the AIDS crisis and the rampant, structural homophobia that it spawned. 

A lot happened in the 1980s: a decade of massive social, political and cultural change the influence of which has dripped through every decade since. And, as usual, there were plenty of writers itching to make sense of it all. Here are 20 of the most significant.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver (1981)

Few authors had a sharper knack for putting to ink how people actually communicate in the real world than Carver. And you'd be hard-pushed to find a better example of his extraordinary talent for dialogue than in WWTAWWTAL (a mouthful whichever way you skin it) – and the book that made him a household name.

It was his unique alchemy of wisdom, humour, and taut, no-nonsense prose that catapulted Carver into literary lore, and this steaming brew of short stories that tackle memory, love and the lies we tell each other and ourselves is his masterpiece.

Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler (1982)

The 1980s was the decade that established Anne Tyler as “queen of the quietly devastating domestic novel”. But Breathing Lessons is the book that won her a Pulitzer, so it seems apt to choose that for this list (though her 1982 classic Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant must come a very close second)

Told across a single summer's day, Maggie and Ira, married and middle-aged, drive from Baltimore to Pennsylvania for the funeral of a friend. But soon, thanks to a series of unexpected detours, they are forced to confront the meaning of their marriage head-on.

It provided a vivid portrait of a 28-year-long marriage painted in hard-earned truths – the expectations and disappointments; the secrets and lies; the stresses children can place on young love that, as the British critic Robert McCrum wrote, "somehow slips the surly bonds of the quotidian to become timeless and universal.”

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde (1982)

Whenever she spoke publicly, Audre Lorde introduced herself as follows: “I am a Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.”

Her point? She couldn't be squeezed into a single word. “If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive,” she wrote in Zami, her groundbreaking memoir (or "biomythography", as she called it) of her life as a Black “gay-girl” in 1930s Harlem, her fight for acceptance in Jim Crow America, and her life in New York's growing gay scene. It shot the Black lesbian experience into mainstream consciousness.

“In her prescient writings she demonstrated, time and again, a remarkable and necessary ability to stand up for herself, her intellectual prowess and that of all Black women, with power and grace,” wrote the author Roxane Gay in her introduction to the book. “She recognised the importance of speaking up because silence would not protect her or anyone.”

The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)

This is the book that made Alice Walker the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. And two years later, Steven Spielberg adapted it into a film that featured the screen acting debuts of Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey.

A heart-puncturing tale of one woman's spiritual awakening in the Deep South, it tells the story of Celie and her struggles to escape the cycle of brutality and humiliation meted out on her by men – raped by her father and married off to an abusive husband until she finds love in the arms of a vivacious female blues singer named Shug Avery.

But there's so much more to it than that. So much, in fact, that – as Victoria Bond wrote in The New Republic, "The Color Purple lingers as perhaps the cultural touchstone for black women in America, a kind of lingua franca of familiarity and friendship."

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (1983)

One of the most famous – and flesh-creeping – horror novels of the past 50 years, certainly by a British author. The fact that its stage adaptation remains the second longest-running play in the history of London's West End is evidence of its power. Hill's is the perfect gothic haunted house story.

A young solicitor travels to a creepy old house to settle the affairs of a recently dead client of his firm, Mrs Alice Drablow. But at her funeral, he spots a wasted young woman, floaty and silent, fomenting a sense of unease in him that deepens into a reality far darker than any nightmare. And what he soon finds – or rather, what finds him – has a more sinister significance to his own life than he could ever have imagined.

It was the book that breathed life back into the zombifying horror genre. And for anyone who's read the heart-chilling masterpiece, two words: rocking chair. For anyone who's not: Read it.

White Noise by Don DeLillo (1985)

In its review of Don DeLillo White Noise, the New York Times called the novel: "timely and frightening – precisely because of its totally American concerns, its rendering of a particularly American numbness."

That numbness, in DeLillo's mind, was a result the soul-ossifying impact of mass-media and consumerism on contemporary America that was eating society alive.

It follows a university professor of Hitler studies, who grows angry, paranoid and terminally obsessed with his own mortality after a toxic spill near his home. So when he discovers his wife has been taking an experimental drug to combat the fear of death, he vows to get his hands on the drug at any cost in this lucid reflection of the anxiety, self-absorption, and alienation of the 1980s.

"White Noise," wrote Lev Grossman in TIME, "captures the quality of daily existence in media-saturated, hyper-capitalistic postmodern America so precisely, you don’t know whether to laugh or whimper."

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

It was written in 1985, but The Handmaid's Tale remains one of those masterworks of prescient genius that defies time and place, shunting issues into focus, whenever it's re-issued or adapted for stage, TV or film, that never seem to go away.

It is a portrait of a totalitarian world where the ruling class have been sterilised by environmental toxins, still-fertile women are subjugated into breeding machines for their male “commanders”, dissenters are hanged on lampposts and Puritanical extremism reigns.

What makes Margaret Atwood's classic all the more harrowing is that she based every element of the story on real-life antecedents from around the world.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (1985)

"I venture that no other living American novelist, not even Pynchon, has given us a book as strong and memorable as Blood Meridian," wrote the powerhouse American critic Harold Bloom in 2019. "It is the ultimate Western, not to be surpassed."

It follows the experiences of a boy, known as The Kid, with the Glanton gang (led by the blood-boilingly satanic The Judge), a historical band of scalp hunters who slaughtered native Americans and others along the Texas–Mexico borderlands in the 1840s for bounty, pleasure, and eventually just habit.

It is a story soaked in menace, and awash with nuance, and with blood festooned across almost every page. And yet, McCarthy's primary-colour prose lifts it from the realm of camp horror into a genuine devastation of the senses – a story so troubling, fearsome and intense that it has never lost its relevance. One of the greatest American novels of all time.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (1985)

Stories about Christian teenage girls coming out as gay were not the most popular subject matter in mainstream literature of the 1980s. But Jeanette Winterson's groundbreaking semi-autobiographical coming-of-ager did exactly that.

In a Britain still crawling with homophobia, the novel proved groundbreaking, and won the 25-year-old instant literary acclaim as well as the Whitbread Award for a First Novel.

It follows Jeanette, adopted by a God-fearing Pentecostal family who taught her the ways of the missionary's life. Trouble is, she's actually gay and is soon forced into a game of cat-and-mouse with her past as she tries to make sense of her future in this tender, witty, and gripping account of forbidden love and listening to the beat of one's own heart in the face of religious fanaticism.

IT by Steven King (1986)

Did coulrophobia (the irrational fear of clowns) exist before Stephen King wrote IT, about a psychotic dream clown who murders children and feeds on their fear? It had to, because, in King's own words, “Clowns are scary … I mean, if I were a sick kid and I saw a f***ing clown coming, all the red lines would go off on my gear, because I'd be scared to death!”

Anyway, you can't talk about books of the 1980s without a shout out to Stephen King. It was the decade he wrote Cujo, The Running Man, Christine, Pet Sematery, Misery, The Tommyknockers... take your pick.

But for sheer impact on popular horror, IT was the book that made clowns definitively scary for a whole generation. And the fact that Pennywise is still paying King's bills 30 years later with the recent double-movie adaptation starring Bill Skarsgård as the homicidal harlequin of Hell is testament to its timeless appeal.

Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

This, simply, is the book that cemented Toni Morrison a literary A-lister and one of America's greatest writers of the 20th century. It won the Pulitzer prize in 1988 for its raw and harrowing portrayal of the horrors of slavery and its legacy and was key in the Swedish Academy's decision to award Morrison the Nobel Prize five years later, making her the first African American to do so.

It's story of a runaway slave haunted by the ghost of the baby she murdered rather than see her returned to subjugation. And it struck a painful chord in American culture like no book had done on the subject before. In 2006, The Book Review named it the best American work of fiction of the previous quarter-century.

Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe (1987)

This, perhaps more than any other novel of its time, captured a decade on the rise-and-fall. Which is to say, it evoked a time when greed reigned and money rained harder. The fall was yet to come. And for that, it has, more than once, been hailed “the quintessential novel of the 1980s”.

First published in serial form in Rolling Stone, it cut through Wall Street's culture of greed and vanity like an ornamental cigar guillotine on a bond trader's desk.

It's about the catastrophic downfall of Sherman McCoy, a WASP, millionaire bond trader and self-anointed “Master of the Universe” after he runs over and kills a Black teenager in the Bronx.

What emerges is a skin-flaying portrayal of the haves and the have-nots of New York City, binding together Wall Street, the media and the legal system with acid wit, delicious prose and no small amount of nudge-wink satire.

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (1988)

It's almost a shame that this book is better remembered for igniting a global controversy than for its story, because it's a brilliantly imaginative tour de force about two men who are thrown from a bombed plane only to be washed up, alive, in England. The price for their salvation? They have been chosen by a higher power as opponents in the battle between good and evil. It's surreal, ironic, intense and brilliant.

Trouble was, its depiction of the prophet Mohammad sparked outrage across part of the Muslim world, moving Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, to issue a fatwa against Rushdie, and a $6 million reward for his life.

Rushdie spent the next decade in hiding, shadowed by round-the-clock bodyguards. Several attempts were made on his life. Books were burned, and bookshops firebombed. The Japanese translator of the novel was assassinated.

As the author Hanif Kureishi wrote in 2012, “[The Rushdie Affair] is one of the most significant events in postwar literary history; it reminded us that words can be dynamite and that in other parts of the world … writers who spoke freely could be in great danger.”

The Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst (1988)

In 1988, amid mounting hysteria about the spread of HIV, Thatcher’s Tory government passed a bill banning local councils and schools from “promoting homosexuality.” Meanwhile, councils were forbidden from stocking libraries with literature or films that contained gay or lesbian themes.

It was high time, then, for a sex-drenched novel about the gay life in London, and Alan Hollinghurst was the man for the job. 

"It all looked rather dicey before it came out," he told The Guardian. "No one would buy the paperback rights. People didn't quite know how to handle it."

Nevertheless, the book – about a promiscuous young aristocrat who spends his days idly cruising locker rooms and public loos for pleasures of the flesh – became an instant hit, catapulting Hollinghurst to literary stardom and paving the way for explicit gay fiction as a mainstream pursuit. And he did it, as the New York Times wrote, “with a stylistic prowess and attentive rigor that made previous writers of sexually explicit fiction, gay and straight alike, look squeamish and incurious by comparison.”

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1988)

While we try to focus on novels in these lists of epoch-shaping books, now and then there comes along a work of non-fiction that captures people's imaginations and has such cultural significance that it cannot be ignored. For the 1980s, Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is that book.

Just as Alex Comfort's The Joy of Sex changed how the western world saw the bedroom in the 1970s, A Brief History of Time changed how the world saw the sky. More than that, it changed the meaning of existence for your average non-PhD holding earthling.

Upon publication, it spent a meteoric 237 weeks on the Times bestseller list (and 147 weeks on the New York Times' American equivalent), has been translated into 35 languages, sold north of 10 million copies and landed Hawking a cameo gig on The Simpsons.

Matilda by Roald Dahl (1988)

Is there a single adult born after 1980 in Britain who doesn't know the story of Matilda, the telekinetic bookworm who escapes her abusive family to live a life of literature? It feels unlikely.

For that matter, are there many books with so many characters as unforgettable as the sleazy Mr Wormwood, the dreamy Miss Honey or Miss Trunchball, who is practically an adjective in herself, to name only the headliners?

And it offered an entire generation of young readers the idea that you can think your way out of difficult situations, that it's OK to be angry, that bullies aren't the heroes of your story, and that authority shouldn't be blindly trusted to keep us safe. It was, in a lot of ways, a self-help book for kids as much as a triumphant ode to the human spirit. That, and a rollicking good read.

Bad Behavior by Mary Gatskill (1988)

This sultry, daring and deliciously sordid collection of short stories shocked America with it's frank portrayal of the inner lives of men and women in 1980s New York.

Its world of strip-lit diners and seedy back-alley clubs, late-night liaisons and extra-marital affairs awakened readers to kinky sex and sado-masochism like the crack of a riding crop on the nation's bare buttocks.

“She did for the New York short story back then something comparable to what Debbie Harry had done a few years earlier for the New York popular song: invested it with stark attitude and jagged lived emotion,” wrote Tim Adams in The Guardian in 2016.

The most famous story, Secretary, about a legal assistant who adores making typing errors so her dreamboat but perverted boss can punish her with increasingly humiliating sexual tasks, was made into a hit movie of the same name starring Maggie Gyllenhaal in 2002.

The book became a proto-feminist cult classic, funny, stark, dark and dingy, as it shone a light on the shadier corners of human behaviour.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (1989)

By 1989, the immigrant's experience was not the well-trodden topic it is now in novels. At least, not stories about the pain of starting a new life in an alien world, watching one's children grow into citizens of a new country thousands of miles from home, and the anguish of trying to keep alive one's past in them when they'd rather be someone else.

That's the premise of Amy Tan's masterpiece, a novel that beguiled America for its portrayal of four elderly Chinese immigrant women desperate to pass their culture down to their westernised daughters.

Tan's intensely poetic prose brought these complex women, and their stories, vividly to life in a novel that, for the first time, gave a human voice to America's millions-strong Chinese diaspora – a story many on both sides of the Atlantic had scarcely read in print before.

London Fields by Martin Amis (1989)

Written at the end of the 1980s, about the end of the 1990s, this book encapsulated growing fears over what Blur would soon lament the “End of a Century” and is widely considered to be one of the all-time great London novels. And Martin Amis' best.

It follows a young author with a 20-year writer's block and a terminal illness thrust into a murder mystery after he meets a doomed young woman who knows she will die on her 35th birthday. Any of the men in her milieu could be her killer. Though, for our narrator, this is less a chance to save a life than to tell the story of a lifetime.

The book ravished readers on both sides of the Pond with its gritty imagining of a post-Thatcherite Britain on the brink of a new millennium (“horror-day”) in the grip of environmental, social and moral decay. Or, as the historian Simon Schama called it, a “never-likely-to-be-bettered bedtime story from the heart of Mrs Thatcher's darkest Albion; stained with punk spit and pub puke; glossy as polished leather and sexy as hell.”

Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)

It's quiet. It's subtle. It's agonisingly English. Kazuo Ishiguro's Booker-winning novel about the life and private tortures of an ageing butler with an upper lip as stiff as his starched collar was the heartbreaker Britain seemed to need in 1989.

Set between the wars, but published as the Berlin Wall was coming down, Y2K was looming, and Britain stood at the edge of a cultural cliff, maybe it was the nostalgia for a forgotten time when “things were always better left unsaid” that resonated.

Whatever it was, this haunting tale of lost causes and lost love rang a bell that echoed through the collective imagination from London to Los Angeles and all the way to Stockholm where, 18 years later, Ishiguro was awarded the Nobel Prize for his ability to reveal “the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”

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