America’s Next Top Novel

It can also mean commanding larger advances, the agent said, and earning a measure of insulation from a publisher who is getting impatient with one’s sales figures. In other words-and some publishers would vigorously dispute this-being on the New Yorker list makes it more likely that an author whose books have not sold well historically will be allowed to follow a career trajectory like that of Claire Messud or Joseph O’Neill, who had poor sales records until they broke out with their most recent efforts. “It’s more likely that your publisher is going to stick with you, if The New Yorker has expressed faith in you,” the agent said.

With so much at stake, it’s no wonder that those being considered are nervous. “Not to be included will be perceived as a referendum on current work,” said one author who is under 40. “But to be named to the list will be reaffirming-the first list had a batting average that was pretty damn high, and so I think for an ‘established’ writer, inclusion on the list might indicate that you’re not unlike someone as great as David Foster Wallace or George Saunders.”

According to Ms. Treisman, eight or nine of the authors will have a story or an excerpt of a novel-in-progress published in the June 7th issue of the magazine; the rest will come out in subsequent weeks and will be labeled as “20 under 40″ winners in the table of contents. Only those authors who could provide The New Yorker with a piece of new, unpublished work were eligible for the list. According to Ms. Treisman, more than one writer was disqualified because they could not provide any usable unpublished material; others wrote new material specifically so that they could be considered. “Perhaps it meant more to those people,” Ms. Treisman said, “and perhaps it meant something to the other people, but they simply couldn’t produce something on short notice and for this purpose.”

There has also been a measure of confusion about who does and doesn’t count as “American.” When Granta did their list of best American novels under 35 in 2007, they considered only those authors who had U.S. citizenship. Ms. Treisman was not so hard and fast. “These are all people who are writing primarily for American readers,” she said, but that doesn’t mean they were all born here. One of the authors, she said, is from Canada.

The age restriction was taken very seriously, however-not the case with the 1999 list, which had to be renamed at the last minute because it was discovered that several authors on it were not in fact under 40. “You could take them off the list but they were just so much at the heart of that generation,” said Mr. Buford, who oversaw the selection process.

With the age rule being strictly enforced, a few authors who might have been thought shoo-ins could not be considered, such as Sam Lipsyte (41), Aleksander Hemon (45) and Dave Eggers, who turned 40 in March.

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.” Sorry, Mr. Eggers!