The 20 Under 40: Artificial? Maybe. But a Good Thing Nonetheless

The New Yorker has, for the first time since 1999, compiled its list of “20 under 40,” which attempts to name the 20 most promising younger writers in the contemporary landscape. The last list was a hit-maker, or at least a hit-predictor: Jonathan Franzen went on to write the remarkable The Corrections, and Junot Diaz would later publish The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The list brought Sherman Alexie, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jhumpa Lahiri and Michael Chabon into the average household (okay, the average literary household).

What’s been interesting to me about the 2010 list (find the list of the lucky writers here) is that there’s been, so far, more dialogue in the online world about the legitimacy of the list than about the writers themselves. Quibbling over the logistics, fairness and politics of the list has dominated the conversation about the 20: The Observer spoke to some unnamed literary agents, claiming that “getting their clients on the list was a top priority,” hinting that lobbying might have a place in determining who might be the new king of fiction. The Observer also claims that “only those authors who could provide The New Yorker with a piece of new, unpublished work were eligible for the list…more than one writer was disqualified because they could not provide any usable unpublished material; others wrote new material specifically so that they could be considered.”

There’s been interest in how the magazine arrived at an evenly-divided representation of male and female authors after the 1999 list featured only five women. (The New Yorker was, to be fair, in a no-win situation with regard to equity. Too few women on the list, and charges of blatant sexism would be leveled by one group, too many women and charges of skewing the literary landscape would come from another.)

Then, of course, some people felt the list was too obvious (Jonathan Safran Foer and Joshua Ferris likely have little to gain from inclusion on the list, as their reputations seem secure as any early-career novelist’s can) and others felt the list was too obscure (Tea Obreht’s first novel is yet to be published. Her author’s website indicates that she’s published only two short pieces of fiction in journals thus far in her career).

When my mentor David Wagoner served as guest editor of Best American Poetry last year, he mentioned to me that he had difficulty with the attribute of “best.” He preferred to think of the work he was collecting as a group of very good poems published that year. The New Yorker doesn’t seem to think about the collection of writers in the same way. It seems, from the high secrecy and drama of the proceedings, and from the great fanfare that came along with the announcement, that the New Yorker is trying to define the most important voices in an entire generation of writers.

A little be of me–the West Coast half that bristles at the East Coast’s absurd attempts to dominate art in America–scoffs at the idea that only fiction that fits The New Yorker’s taste represents the best of all possible storytelling.

But a larger part of me kind of likes the gutsy approach the magazine’s taking. The list is not so much a referendum on the new nobility of literature as it is a way to say “books are important. The novel’s not dead. Now pay attention!” So whatever artificial mechanisms may or may not have been at play in determining the 20 under 40, I think The New Yorker’s done a great thing. Not only has it found some very good writers and promoted their work in a way that will hopefully lead to their greater success, it’s also kindled a discussion about fiction, about what we value in books, and about what’s new, fresh, and interesting in literature today.

I hope the list will encourage readers to explore new writers, will give some young novelists a leg up in the tough publishing world, and keep throwing gas on the fire of literary discussion.

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7 Replies to “The 20 Under 40: Artificial? Maybe. But a Good Thing Nonetheless”

  1. When considering the New Yorker’s possible motivations behind the development of such an arbitrary list, I can’t help running them through the WIIFU equation (What’s In It For Us?). As a long time subscriber to the mag, I’ve noticed a sharp decrease in advertising and page count in recent years, with a related drop in influence in literary and political circles. To me, the list is largely a PR gimmick, designed to boost revenue by creating controversy within literary circles. In that regard the tactic is not much different from A People Magazine “50 Hottest Surgically-Altered or Steroid-Enhanced Celebrities” issue.

    Frankly, the New Yorker’s need to publish such a list only serves to point out the magazine’s increasing irrelevance to the literary world, as it relies more and more on agent lobbying to select works of fiction, rather than author talent. I used to feel, as a writer, that I had to read their short stories. But after finding many of them sentimental, formulaic, or just completely uninteresting, I no longer do so. (I still read for the investigative news features.) If someone wants to read fiction that matters, the best places to turn are the lit journals—the ones run by writers and editors, not figureheads. There’s a very good one out on the west coast—Los Angeles Review, I believe it’s called.

  2. i think lists are often useful even if i don’t agree with them — which is what i think you are saying. a colleague of mine in classics tells me that “best of” literary lists were around as early as the Romans, and of course the quintessential anti-list, the graffiti scrawl, was there too! so if one is mad about the Safran Foer getting yet another hats off, i guess one could scrawl about it in a public restroom! it’s all good if it keeps people reading!

  3. “I hope the list will encourage readers to explore new writers, will give some young novelists a leg up in the tough publishing world, and keep throwing gas on the fire of literary discussion.”

    Thanks for this Kelly! And yes this definitely encourages me to keep a leg up on this crazy, but very fun ride!! 🙂

  4. Kelly, you have brought out some very interesting points that I probably would never have given any thought to. I must say you covered every area of possible motivations. While The New Yorker has created a list of “best” new writers, it concerns me that there is a whole arena of writers that have tried desperately to get their books published, and yet, still go unnoticed.

    Over the past four decades of my reading history, I remember so many phenomenal writers that had difficulty getting their books published and went unnoticed for too long. Yet, it was their determination that finally resulted in success. I’m reminded of Wayne Dyer’s story – peddling his books in the back of his car.

    New writers are facing a very difficult time now in publishing. Most likely, that’s why many are self-publishing. The list is of no interest to me since I’m not one of their readers. However, your post grabbed my attention of who “rules.” Thanks for this GREAT post.

  5. Joe, I agree that The New Yorker is serving itself with the list, and that the controversy it stirs up is, perhaps, artificial as well. But I can’t help but love it that so many people are gossiping, arguing, and, for once, really talking about the future of the novel in America.

    Stefanie, I think that’s fascinating that there were best-ofs so early! And how cool would it be if there were, in fact, literary graffiti?

    Naomi, I love the ever-positive attitude! Yes, it may be wild, but it’s fun, too.

    Bonnie, that is the scary part of this business; how many good writers’ work will never see print? How many works of real importance are sitting in someone’s desk drawer? I like to think that determination will ultimately pay off…a list I’d like to see might be the list of “the 20 best writers you’ve never heard of, and of whom publishers should take immediate note.” Maybe with a catchier title.

  6. Thanks, Tim! I–and I hope my blog readers–will enjoy checking out these reviews! Much appreciated.

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