Fowler, Karen Joy 1950–
Fowler, Karen Joy 1950–
PERSONAL: Born February 7, 1950, in Bloomington, IN; daughter of Cletus (an animal psychologist) and Joy Arthur (a schoolteacher; maiden name, Fossum) Burke; married Hugh Fowler, 1972; children: Ryan, Shannon. Education: Attended University of California, Berkeley, 1968–70, B.A., 1972; attended State University of New York, 1970–71; University of California, Davis, M.A., 1974.
CAREER: Novelist, short story writer, and educator. Cleveland State University, Cleveland, OH, writer-in-residence.
AWARDS, HONORS: John W. Campbell Memorial Award (Hugo Award) for best new writer, World Science Fiction Society, 1987; grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, 1988; Commonwealth Club Medal, 1991, for Sarah Canary; World Fantasy Award for best collection, World Fantasy Convention, 1999, for Black Glass: Short Fictions; finalist for PEN/Faulkner Award, 2002, for Sister Noon; Nebula Award for best short story, 2004, for "What I Didn't See."
Artificial Things (story collection), Bantam (New York, NY), 1986.
Peripheral Vision (story collection), Pulphouse (Eugene, OR), 1990.
Sarah Canary (novel), Holt (New York, NY), 1991.
(Contributor) Kim Stanley Robinson, editor, "Pulphouse" Science-Fiction Short Stories, Pulphouse (Eugene, OR), 1991.
The Sweetheart Season: A Novel, Holt (New York, NY), 1996.
Black Glass: Short Fictions, Holt (New York, NY), 1998.
Sister Noon, Putnam (New York, NY), 2001.
The Jane Austen Book Club, Putman (New York, NY), 2004.
Work represented in periodicals, including Pulphouse and Science Fiction.
ADAPTATIONS: The Jane Austen Book Club has been optioned for film by Sony Pictures Entertainment and was adapted for audio by Listen & Live, 2004.
SIDELIGHTS: Winner of the 1987 Hugo Award for best new writer, Karen Joy Fowler is the author of short story collections and novels that use fantastical characters and situations to bring to light various aspects of human nature. Her work has been well received by critics.
In her first story collection, Artificial Things, Fowler compiled thirteen short stories, many of which had appeared previously in periodicals. Applauding the stories as worthy "examples of both literary form and style," Voice of Youth Advocates's Allison Rogers Hutchison especially recommended the work to writing students. The critic also praised Fowler's skillful use of fantastic plotlines and characters to show the human world in a different light. Fowler accomplishes this by presenting humans through the eyes of her alien characters. For instance, in one story, insectile aliens probe the mind of a poet, while in another, humans in the far future study replicants who reenact historical events. Karen S. Ellis noted in Kliatt that although many of the stories in Artificial Things were abstract, the "study of human nature" was an important theme in Fowler's work.
In 1990 Fowler issued her second collection of short stories. Titled Peripheral Vision, the volume garnered further praise for Fowler as an emerging writer. Reviewing the work in the Washington Post Book World, Gregory Feeley lauded Fowler as a "writer of clarity and humor." In particular, the reviewer cited "The Faithful Companion at Forty" and "Contention" as examples of the author's interest in writing modern stories which, he felt, retained the element of fantasy "without shifting their centers of gravity."
This sense of fantasy also pervades Fowler's novel Sarah Canary. Set in the late nineteenth-century, it recounts the adventures of a mysterious woman called Sarah Canary and a Chinese immigrant laborer named Chin. The book begins when Sarah—who has been described variously by critics as a mysterious wild creature and an enigmatic woman who speaks in grunts and strange sounds—is entrusted to Chin's care after she wanders into his labor camp. Chin is asked to take Sarah to an asylum, but before he can accomplish this task, he is jailed. Separated from Sarah, the imprisoned Chin vows to free her, marking the beginning of their adventures together. Accompanying them on their journey are B.J., an escapee from a mental institution, and Adelaide Dixon, a free-thinking lecturer. The narrative follows the characters through a bizarre series of events until they reach San Francisco, where Chin escapes to China and eventually becomes a government bureaucrat. Sarah, on the other hand, vanishes without a trace or explanation.
The plot of Sarah Canary is loosely structured and has lent itself to numerous interpretations. Barbara Quick, writing in the New York Times Book Review, said that the story presents a "dreamscape" through which Fowler reveals a "tableau of the Pacific Northwest in the 1870s." Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Richard Eder described Sarah Canary as "part ghost story, part picaresque adventure," an unusual narrative style that has allowed Fowler to present an ironic and painful vision of late nineteenth-century America. Explaining that the main characters of the book are representative of the victims of that age, Eder drew parallels between events in history and the action of the story. For example, he believed the character of Chin evokes the large number of Chinese immigrants who worked on building American railroads, while the female characters reveal the plight of women at the time. Another reviewer, Michael Dorris, wrote in the Chicago Tribune Books that Sarah Canary is a "full-tilt allegory, an uncompromising work of imagination that asks its readers to not merely suspend disbelief but to surrender it." Describing the landscape of the book as mythic, Dorris called Sarah "a cipher, an embodiment of each individual's deeply buried need for mystery in life." Quick noted in her final assessment that Sarah Canary "is an extraordinarily strong first novel" that "whets the appetite for what … [Fowler] will serve up next."
Fowler next served up an optimistic novel about a mill town that makes breakfast cereal. The Sweetheart Season: A Novel takes place in 1947, and the mill owner decides to form an all-girl traveling baseball team. He hopes this will promote his business and lift the girls' spirits, as they are bemoaning the fact that the war is over, but none of the boys wants to come back to his hometown. By going on the road, he reasons, they have a better chance of meeting nice, young bachelors. A Kirkus Reviews contributor called the story "a sluggish though skillful second novel,… alternately a romp and a slog." Deirdre McNamer, however, wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "Ms. Fowler's willingness to take detours, her unapologetic delight in the odd historical fact, her shadowy humor and the elegant unruliness of her language, all elevate her story from the picaresque to the grand."
In Black Glass: Short Fictions, the author presents fifteen varied short stories, ranging in scope from a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent who encounters the spirit of Carry A. Nation to aliens taking lessons on love Earth style. Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, writing in the Library Journal, called the collection "stunning" and noted that despite the extraordinary conceits of the stories the author makes "what should seem incredible … fully believable." A Publishers Weekly contributor commented that the author "delights in the arcane," adding that the stories "are occasionally puzzling but never dull." Elizabeth Hand, writing in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, noted: "This is a superior collection, gracefully written but also utterly absorbing. I only wish it had been twice as long."
Set in 1890s San Francisco, Fowler's 2001 novel Sister Noon tells the story of Lizzie Hayes, a single woman in her forties who volunteers to work at the Ladies' Relief and Protection Society Home. Known for her reliability, Hayes nevertheless involves herself in adventure and intrigue when the notorious Mrs. Mary Ellen Pleasant arrives at the home with a young orphan girl named Jenny Ijub in tow. The parents of Jenny are unknown but rumors abound, including one that Jenny's father is wealthy, leading Lizzie to think of a possible donation to the home. Meanwhile, Mrs. Pleasant may be much more than she seems, perhaps even a voodoo priestess. "The story is a blend of history, suspense, and commentary on societal norms and social pretensions that both guide and confine," wrote Eileen Hardy in Booklist. Starr E. Smith, writing in the Library Journal, called the effort "a deft blend of historical fact, urban myth, social satire, and romance." A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that the author "moves her principals through time and space seamlessly and gracefully, and exquisitely renders San Francisco."
Perhaps Fowler's most successful novel in terms of widespread recognition is The Jane Austen Book Club. Optioned for film shortly after its spring 2004 release, the story offers an exploration of Austen's novels as it follows the activities of six book club members. The members are diverse in age and life experience: only one is a man, and he becomes an object of constant speculation by the others. However, the characters all have one common thread besides their love of reading—each exhibits strong character traits shared by some of Austen's characters or the author herself. "Fowler shares Austen's fascination with the power of stories, and explores the same timeless aspects of human behavior that Austen so masterfully dramatizes," wrote Donna Seaman in Booklist. Calling the novel "ingenious," John Freeman, writing in People, added that "the real pleasure comes from watching Fowler pay homage to Austen's gift." A Publishers Weekly contributor commented that "the novelty of Fowler's package should attract significant numbers of book club members, not to mention the legions of Janeites craving good company and happy endings."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1991.
Booklist, May 15, 2001, Eileen Hardy, review of Sister Noon, p. 1731; March 15, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of The Jane Austen Book Club, p. 1265.
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 1996, review of The Sweetheart Season: A Novel, p. 1074.
Kliatt, April, 1987, Karen S. Ellis, review of Artificial Things, pp. 29-30.
Library Journal, February 1, 1998, Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, review of Black Glass: Short Fictions, p. 114; May 1, 2001, Starr E. Smith, review of Sister Noon, p. 126.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 20, 1991, Richard Eder, review of Sarah Canary, pp. 3, 7; September 29, 1996, review of The Sweetheart Season: A Novel, p. 2.
Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May, 1992, Orson Scott Card, review of Sarah Canary, p. 50; August, 1998, Elizabeth Hand, review of Black Glass, p. 30.
New York Times Book Review, November 10, 1991, Barbara Quick, review of Sarah Canary, p. 18; October 13, 1996, Deirdre McNamer, review of The Sweetheart Season, p. 27.
People, May 24, 2004, John Freeman, review of The Jane Austen Book Club, p. 47.
Publishers Weekly, January 5, 1998, review of Black Glass, p. 59; April 9, 2001, review of Sister Noon, p. 48; March 22, 2004, review of The Jane Austen Book Club, p. 59; August 23, 2004, John F. Bank, "The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler, a Bestseller for Marian Wood's Imprint at Putnam, Has Been Optioned as a Movie by Sony Pictures Entertainment, with John Calley as Producer," p. 12.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), December 15, 1991, Michael Dorris, review of Sarah Canary, section 14, pp. 1, 9.
Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 1987, Allison Rogers Hutchison, review of Artificial Things, pp. 89-90.
Washington Post Book World, April 29, 1990, Gregory Feeley, review of Peripheral Vision, p. 8.