According to Bill Buford, doing a “20 under 40” fiction issue of The New Yorker in 1999 was David Remnick’s idea, even if it was inspired by similar lists that Mr. Buford had published as editor of Granta. The U.K.-based quarterly’s first “Best British Novelists” list ran in 1983 and has appeared every 10 years since; in 1996, a year after Mr. Buford left for The New Yorker, they introduced an analogous list of American novelists.
It was three years later, with Mr. Buford installed as fiction editor, that The New Yorker followed with theirs. This year they’re making a new one.
“He liked those Granta issues,” Mr. Buford said on Tuesday, referring to Mr. Remnick. “I resisted it because it’s so much work—it’s not just picking good stories, you have to read everything and to persuade each writer to give you something new, and then hope it’ll be good and bear out your predictions.”
Mr. Buford was proud of the list that came out of his efforts.
“At the end we knew we had a really good list,” he said. “It was a statement. Maybe you could quibble with two or three writers… but mainly it was a really solid list, and it was making a really big statement about what people were doing at the time.”
The New Yorker list included six authors who had also appeared on the Granta list from 1996: Sherman Alexie, Ethan Canin, Edwidge Dandicat, Tony Earley, Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen.
It also had a few names that Granta‘s editors-—ed by Mr. Buford’s successor, Ian Jack—probably wish they hadn’t missed.
“They picked up a few oversights from that Granta list—Foster Wallace was on there, Junot Diaz was on there, Vollmann—writers who probably should have been on that first Granta list,” said current Granta editor John Freeman. “As much as I’d prefer it if we were the only ones doing a list like this, the nice thing is that judges, as hard as they work, are human and there will be people who are left off. If there are other competing lists, then [they] can duke it out or something.”
Let’s get ready to duke, then! Granta published a list of 20 top American novelists just three years ago, which means The New Yorker will be following them once again when they publish their 2010 list in June. Will there be overlap? Mr. Freeman certainly expects there to be.
“I’m glad that our list came out, because I’d be shocked if a significant portion of the authors on that list won’t be on the New Yorker list,” he said.
At what point does “significant” become “embarrassing”? Eight authors? Ten? Thirteen? Whatever the number, it makes sense to ask how motivated the editors of The New Yorker are to minimize overlap. How much of a statement is a magazine really making if another magazine made the same one three years earlier? And most importantly, are novelists who appeared on Granta‘s list less likely to appear on The New Yorker‘s?
According to The New Yorker‘s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, that’s categorically not the case.
“No, there’s no disadvantage to having been on Granta‘s list. I think our tastes tend to be a little different, so the lists are a little different,” she said in an email. “There was overlap last time and there will be some overlap this time as well. It’s not a factor in our decision-making.”
Mr. Freeman, who became editor of Granta last summer, said he also expects there to be overlap, if only because Granta‘s list was, well, right.
“I don’t think they’ll work hard to avoid our list, simply because it’s now pretty clear who are the best novelists under 40 in America, and they were on our list,” he said in a steely email. “And many of them who were on our list three years ago– Gary Shteyngart, Rattawut Lapcharoensap, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nell Freudenberger, Nicole Krauss, ZZ Packer– have a significant relationship with the New Yorker as well, so I suspect there will be significant overlap, if not with those writers than certainly with others.”