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New Yorker's "20 under 40" begets more lists

As any avid sports fan will tell you, the one thing that lists are unquestionably good for is generating more lists.  Ask someone in a press box or at a sports bar to come up with a list of the top ten major league shortstops since World War II, and someone else within hearing range will come up with another list of Hall of Fame members who began their careers as shortstops, but achieved stardom at other positions.  Change the subject to left-handed point guards in basketball, and odds are someone will attempt to top your list with one requiring an even greater command of minutiae. 
 
Literature, of course, is not a competitive sport (or at least it is not obviously so), but has its own romance with compulsive list making. In Nick Hornsby's novel High Fidelity, for instance, protagonist Rob Fleming's "Top Five" lists organize and aestheticize what might otherwise seem desultory about his emotional life.  
 
The New Yorker
magazine unveiled its much-heralded 20 Under 40 summer fiction double issue earlier this month, and if it was the intention of its editors to stir up a debate about the comparative merits of the particular young writers who made the cut as opposed to those who didn't, the appropriateness of grouping writers by chronological age rather than other distinguishing characteristics of their work, and perhaps even the future of fiction as an art form in a time of radical transformations of consciousness and accelerating technological change, then one might consider it a qualified success. 
 
Most of all, what the list seemed to inspire was more lists.
 
Drawn up as a sequel to the now famous 1999 list of twenty younger fiction writers selected by then fiction editor Bill Buford that was titled "The Future of American Fiction" and was at the time seen as a kind of response to the British literary magazine Granta's 1996 list of "Best of Young American Novelists" (which has itself seen a sequel in Granta's 2007 "Best of Young American Novelists 2"), the current list is more culturally diverse (seven foreign-born authors as opposed to four on the 1999 list) and gender-balanced (ten men, ten women as opposed to fifteen men and five women) than its predecessor, but also seemingly more strategically calculated and in tune with the synergies of the publishing business. 
 
Rather than arising out of the wave of millennial speculations about literature and the arts at the end of the 20th century, the current list seems more attuned to The New Yorker's need develop a new "stable" of writers to stay relevant as print culture marches into digital future.   In a move that indicates corporate deal-making behind the aesthetic judgements, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (which already is the publisher of five of the young authors) has already announced plans to publish an anthology comprised of all The New Yorker stories of the 20 Under 40 writers this fall.
 
For the record, here, in alphabetical order, is the illustrious 1999 list, which included several literary innovators and iconoclasts, as well as writers who've been invited into America's living rooms (and in one notable case, "uninvited") courtesy of the demographic pantheon of Oprah Winfrey's television Book Club:
 
Sherman Alexie
Donald Antrim
Ethan Canin
Michael Chabon
Edwidge Danticat
Junot Díaz
Tony Earley
Nathan Englander
Jeffrey Eugenides
Jonathan Franzen
Allegra Goodman
A. M. Homes
Matthew Klam
Jhumpa Lahiri
Chang-rae Lee
Rick Moody
Antonya Nelson
George Saunders
William T. Vollmann
David Foster Wallace
 
Here is the new 20 Under 40 list, followed by their respective ages:
 
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 32
Chris Adrian, 39
Daniel Alarcón, 33
David Bezmozgis, 37
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, 38
Joshua Ferris, 35
Jonathan Safran Foer, 33
Nell Freudenberger, 35
Rivka Galchen, 34
Nicole Krauss, 35
Yiyun Li, 37
Dinaw Mengestu, 31
Philipp Meyer, 36
C. E. Morgan, 33
Téa Obreht, 24
Z Z Packer, 37
Karen Russell, 28
Salvatore Scibona, 35
Gary Shteyngart, 37 
Wells Tower, 37
 
A comment leading off the "The Talk of the Town" feature and signed by "The Editors" (although this is fiction editor Deborah Treisman's list) admits that "the habit of list-making can seem arbitrary or absurd, leaving the list-makers endlessly open to second-guessing," and concedes at the outset the arbitrariness of its cutoff criteria.  Two prominent writers--Dave Eggers and Colson Whitehead--who might otherwise be considered (along with Joshua Ferris and Jonathan Safran Foer) as the most accomplished and recognizable names on the list, are disqualified on the grounds that their birth dates in 1970 put them just a few months on "the wrong side of forty."
 
With well over 800 degree-conferring creative writing programs now operating at colleges and universities in the United States alone, all of them teaching fiction writing as a mainstay in their curricula and each of them turning out graduates and post-graduates each year, it is interesting to note that more than a half dozen of The New Yorker's 20 under 40 come from careers and educational backgrounds that have never placed them within hailing distance of an Modern Language Association convention.  Perhaps that's no accident, but it has raised questions about how much influence two major New York City based publishing houses--FSG and Alfred A. Knopf--had upon the selection process, amid other dissents.
 
The online literary magazine The Millions went so far as draw up an alternate list of 20 More Under 40 including such wunderkinder as Kiran Desai (the Booker Prize winning author of The Inheritance of Loss, now a permanent resident of the U.S.) and Joshua Cohen (author of Witz (Dalkey Archive Press) and A Heaven of Others published by Buffalo's own Starcherone Books) as well as (with an asterisk) the just recently forty Dansy Senna.
 
Conspicuously missing from both lists is 36 year old Zachary Mason, author of the much praised The Lost Books of the Odyssey, a 2007 Starcherone Books novel that was republished in slightly revised form earlier this year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
 
The United Kingdom's The Daily Telegraph responded to The New Yorker's 20 under 40 with its own Are these Britain's best 20 novelists under 40? featuring the extraordinarily talented Zadie Smith (White Teeth and On Beauty) and nineteen other writers that are less well-known, at least on this side of the Atlantic.
 
Over at the New York Times Book Review, editor Sam Tanenhaus weighed in with "How Old Can a ‘Young Writer’ Be?", an essay that challenges the basic premise of the 20 under 40 list--namely, that all writers follow a predictable career trajectory that makes talented young writers inherently worthy of literary interest:
   
The trouble, perhaps, is that this definition of “young writer,” which owes less to literary considerations than to the intersecting categories of sociology and marketing, muddies our understanding of how truly original, enduring fiction comes to be written. Worse, it threatens to infantilize our writers, reducing them to the condition of permanent apprentices who grind steadily toward “maturity” as they prepare to write their “breakthrough” books.
 
How did these twenty writers end up on this list?  Triesman and the her fellow New Yorker editors "read at least one complete book or manuscript by each writer, and at least a portion of whatever work was coming next."
 
"What was notable in all the writing, above and beyond a mastery of language and of storytelling, was a palpable sense of ambition," Triesman observes.  "These writers are not all iconoclasts; some are purposefully working within existing traditions. But they are all aiming for greatness: fighting to get our attention, and to hold it, in a culture that is flooded with words, sounds, and pictures; fighting to surprise, to entertain, to teach, and to move not only us but generations of readers to come."  


On June 9th, three of the writers on The New Yorker's 20 under 40 list--Joshua Ferris, Nell Freudenberger, and Yiyun Li visited the National Public Radio Program "On Point " to discuss their reactions to having been "anointed" by the magazine, how technological change has transformed both the nature of fiction and the form in which it is disseminated in the culture, and what new challenges face young writers in the 21st century with host Tom Ashbrook.   You can stream the one hour program or download it for podcast here.
 
--R.D. Pohl
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