Treisman on the Demographic Breakdown in the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 List

The last time The New Yorker published a 20-under-40 fiction list, in June 1999, they chose only five women: Edwidge Danticat, Allegra Goodman, A. M. Homes, Jhumpa Lahiri and Antonya Nelson. Current fiction editor Deborah Treisman, who is overseeing the selection of a new crop of “20 under 40” writers for the June 14 & 21 issue of the magazine, found this surprising when she looked back at the list. At the time, she was deputy fiction editor, working with Bill Buford. “Those definitely aren’t the numbers now,” she said in an interview on Monday.

Were the editors trying to hit any quotas for the list, in terms of gender, race or age?

Ms. Treisman said no.  

“Obviously it’s something we’re all aware of, but you have to go with the talent, with the literary talent,” she said. “But I’ve been very pleased with the gender breakdown, and that has not been a conscious thing but it’s very even. And I’m pleased with the diversity of the group too.”

In the aftermath of the 1999 list, Sherman Alexie, who was one of the 20 who was selected, told The Iowa Review that he’d only gotten on because “they needed a brown guy.”

“I’m an important brown guy now,” he said.

Ms. Treisman chuckled when she was asked about this interview the other day.

“Well, that’s Sherman,” she said. “We had Sherman on the list because we are huge fans of his writing.”

As for age: “We saw at the beginning that a lot of the authors were falling into the 35-to-40 range. It seems that 35 is when it clicks and people really find their voice. We actually have quite a few now who are younger than that.” She said one of the authors on the list was born in 1985, and does not even have a book out. “It’s serendipitous. We’re letting that happen. I’m not gonna go out and say I need one 23-year-old. That’s not how it works. It has to be on the basis of the work.” Treisman on the Demographic Breakdown in the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 List