America’s Next Top Novel

This practice of eliding the source of a “short story” that is really an excerpt from an existing book has endured despite protestations from publishers.

“It probably delights them to pick something that has been unsullied by a book contract,” said Daniel Menaker, who was an editor in the fiction department from 1976 until 1995. “They want people to have a whole experience: They don’t want people to be reading this magazine as if it were slices of pie from some other bakery. You can say, well, that’s false-it is slices of pie. But, well, go ahead and say it.”

The “20 under 40″ list is the ultimate occasion to channel that drive to discover the unknown. One wonders to what extent the authors who make the list will henceforth be associated with The New Yorker, and to what extent the magazine will be credited with whatever success they go on to have.

When you ask Mr. Buford about the 1999 list, he says that everyone who was on it was in some way being discovered.

“If you followed fiction, yes, all but two or three would have been known,” he said, “but for most people they were unknown.”

Mr. Remnick says even Mr. Franzen, whose inclusion in the list seems totally obvious today, at the time was but “a slightly cultish, lightly read, avant-garde young-ish novelist.”

“It depends on when you’re reading the list, whether these people seem obvious or not,” he said. “I hope that, if only to prove our brilliant good judgment, that phenomenon seems the case in another 10 years, or however long it takes us to get around to doing this again.”

So can they do it again? Will the list they come up with this summer seem in ten years as full of heavyweights as the ’99 seems now?

“To be honest with you this is a referendum on them as much as it is a referendum on writers,” said the young  under-40 author quoted above. “They are the ones anointing certain people as having the longevity and talent. They chose wisely in 1999. They’ve gotta choose wisely this time around too. They don’t want to fuck it up.”

 lneyfakh@observer.com

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