Perhaps it’s just a sign of encroaching curmudgeonliness, but I find that as my own age climbs inexorably through the thirties, the less interested I am in the work of writers who are younger than I am. Looking over the much-ballyhooed New Yorker list of “20 under 40,” which came out last week, I felt mostly impatience. After all, as Bill Buford reminded us in 1999, the last time The New Yorker engaged in one of these exercises, there are “remarkably few prodigies” in fiction writing—“it takes years, decades even, before some writers really begin using language as something to make stories with.” If the best, for most if not all of these writers, truly is yet to come, why am I reading them now?
I know why, of course: because young writers deserve encouragement and patronage, otherwise they won’t turn into middle-aged writers; because a couple of the stories—each of the writers chosen gets a story in The New Yorker, and eight of the 20 appear in the current issue—are masterpieces; because there were moments in most of the others that justified their existence. I plan to read the rest of the work as it appears over the next few months. (As a side note, I wish the magazine would make it clearer which of the stories were meant to stand alone and which—such as Gary Shteyngart’s—were actually novel excerpts. And speaking of Shteyngart, I was amused to see that The New Yorker’s editors excised an explicit scene describing oral sex but not the multiple subsequent references to it later in the text, making Shteyngart seem uncharacteristically prudish.)
Reading the issue, I also felt déjà vu. Haven’t we been here before? In addition to the 1999 list, the magazine published “Debut Fiction” issues in 2000 and 2001 devoted to the work of unpublished writers (a few of whom made it to the new list). And Granta, three years ago, came out with its own list of 21 “Best Young American Novelists” that hardly overlapped with The New Yorker’s list. (The differences have to do with taste, not with age—Granta’s cutoff was 35.) In a bow of the head to the inherent randomness of all such lists, the magazine apologetically notes that some writers, such as Dave Eggers and Colson Whitehead, would have been included had they only been born a year later. Charles Bock, Nathan Englander (who was on the 1999 list), and Sam Lipsyte also aged out.
In hindsight, The New Yorker’s track record seems to have been astonishingly good. More than half the writers on the 1999 list—including Michael Chabon, Jeffrey Eugenides, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Franzen, and Jhumpa Lahiri—went on to write books that would be among the decade’s most admired. In the new issue, the editors applaud their past foresight, noting that for many of the writers, their “breakthrough books were still ahead of them.” But to what extent is such a list a self-fulfilling prophecy? These writers have all written terrific books, and no doubt many of them would have broken through without The New Yorker’s imprimatur, but let’s also not discount the role it may have played in helping them get book contracts, reviews, public attention. In other words, the success of the writers on the list is not necessarily a sign so much of the list-makers’ great literary taste or ability to predict the future as it is a sign of the list’s influence.
I have two suggestions (entirely unsolicited, of course) for The New Yorker going forward. First, no repeats: any writer who has already appeared on a New Yorker list should be automatically disqualified. Nell Freudenberger, Jonathan Safran Foer, ZZ Packer (who all appeared in the Debut Fiction issues of 2000 and 2001)—couldn’t we just consider them already anointed? Second, restrict the list to writers of any age who have published a single book. If the goal is really to promote up-and-comers, it’s ludicrous to draw distinctions by age—and unfair to compare a 24-year-old who has yet to publish her first book (Téa Obreht) to a 39-year-old Guggenheim recipient who has already published three (Chris Adrian). Meanwhile, the authors of two of the most exciting debut novels of the last decade—Helen DeWitt, whose amazing The Last Samurai was published in 2000, when she was 43, and Bock, whose novel Beautiful Children I’ve already written enough about—weren’t eligible. The most talked-about novel so far this year is the surprise Pulitzer Prize winner Tinkers, by first-time novelist Paul Harding (born 1967).
Buford, in 1999, recognized how unrepresentative such a “snapshot of a generation,” compiled according to similar standards, would have looked 100 years ago. Willa Cather wouldn’t have been on it—she was 27, with 13 years ahead before her first novel. Edith Wharton, age 37, was known at that point mainly for her book about interior decorating. Theodore Dreiser wouldn’t publish Sister Carrie till the following year. “Seen from here, the year 1899 is remarkable not for its writers but for its toddlers,” Buford wrote—Hemingway, Borges, and Nabokov were all born that year, and Faulkner was “just out of diapers.” The writers on The New Yorker list are guaranteed plenty of attention over the next decade. Let’s keep an eye on the cracks, to see who falls through.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor of The New Republic.