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.
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.”
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!
AS OF MONDAY, Ms. Treisman said, the magazine had already bought some pieces that came to them as submissions for “20 under 40,” but editors have not indicated to anyone whether those pieces will be published in a regular issue of The New Yorker or whether they will be on the list. Sixteen of the selections have been finalized, and four are still being settled. “No one has been told for sure yet, though probably 14 or 15 of them know that there’s a very strong likelihood,” said Ms. Treisman, adding that some publishers have called asking when a decision would come down because they wanted to mention their author’s inclusion in sales meetings.
Work on the list began back in January, when Ms. Treisman sat down with fiction editors Willing Davidson and Cressida Leyshon and drew up a sheet of potential names. Then she emailed literary agents and editors at publishing houses and asked for recommendations, with the understanding that people would mostly “nominate” authors they work with and have an interest in. Once the two lists were combined-there was, predictably, a lot of overlap-Ms. Treisman and her people sought out every word of published material by those authors and set about reading them. In the end, they chose around 40 finalists and at that point asked them to submit any unpublished material that could run in the magazine.
Mr. Remnick has worked closely with the fiction department throughout the entire process, Ms. Treisman said.
“He’s been involved in okaying our choices,” she said. “I’ve given him pieces of fiction that we’re considering and talked to him about the writers. Some of them he’s already very familiar with, and, for the most part, he’s been as excited as we are about them.”
According to Mr. Remnick, there will be wild cards-authors who have yet to find large audiences for their work, and some who might not even have a book out at all. It is these authors, rather than the gimmes, who render the list a significant publishing act.
“What I hope an exercise like this does,” he said, “in addition to pushing that much more forward names that are obvious or semi-obvious, is [introduce] people who have had minimal exposure, maybe have had one story here and maybe didn’t, but that the fiction department in particular-and I along with them-really want to put in front of you.”
The emphasis placed on introducing new talent to the world is in line with The New Yorker‘s priorities as they are expressed elsewhere. When an unpublished novel is excerpted in the magazine, for instance, the fact that the text is part of a forthcoming book is not mentioned anywhere but in the contributor’s page.
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.”
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