America’s Next Top Novel

jfro by david shankbone America’s Next Top Novel

On June 7, The New Yorker will publish a double fiction issue in which it will name 20 individuals under the age of 40 whom they believe to be the most talented and important American writers of their generation. The authors who are being considered for the list have been told that they will be notified on Friday, or Monday at the latest, whether they have made the cut. Right now, they’re waiting anxiously while the fiction editors at the magazine, led by Deborah Treisman, make their final decisions in congress with editor in chief David Remnick.

With the list (which will appear in the issue dated June 14 & 21), The New Yorker is seeking to assert itself as a uniquely influential force in the unfolding of contemporary literary history. The authors who have been selected, they are saying, will hold the attention of readers for decades to come, and their work will be taken seriously and remembered by future generations even if that’s not self-evident based on what they’ve published so far.

Asked why he had decided to run the list now instead of at some other time, Mr. Remnick replied: ‘You know why we’re doing it this year? Because six months ago, I was brushing my teeth and thought, “God, you know, we haven’t done this in a while.”’

“We’re trying to pinpoint who the key writers of this generation are,” Ms. Treisman said.

The last and only other time the magazine issued a list like this was in 1999, when Bill Buford was the magazine’s fiction editor and Mr. Remnick had just started as editor in chief. It was a hell of a thing. Jonathan Franzen, who had not yet published The Corrections, was on it, as was Jhumpa Lahiri, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning story collection Interpreter of Maladies had just come out. There was also Michael Chabon, pre-Kavalier and Clay, as well as pre-Oscar Wao Junot Diaz and pre-Middlesex Jeffrey Eugenides. Also David Foster Wallace.

SIDEBAR > 20 YOU WON’T BE READING IN ’20 UNDER 40′

The question is: did those authors become major because they were on the list, or were they on the list because they were going to become major anyway?

“I imagine it’s about analogous to a hot Jersey girl getting into a trendy nightclub,” said one novelist who is eligible for the list but does not expect to get on it. “You know, not everyone gets in, and it’s something. It’s not nothing. But even after getting in, she’s still got to be lucky as well as ready to pounce. Will Puff Daddy see her dancing … and then set her up with some kind of TV show or clothing line? Possibly. Or will she stand around uncomfortably, get drunk and then take the long ride back across the river in the early morning?”

Even so, for a number of literary agents, getting their clients on the list was a top priority.

“It just kind of opens doors in a big way,” said one literary agent. “Professionally, for an author, it means you can do things like go to Yaddo anytime you want. It makes it easier for you to sell your work abroad. It makes it easier for you to get teaching jobs or fellowships, or grants if you’re applying for the NEA or the Guggenheim. All of that stuff really matters.”