The READ: The Chosen Ones
Perhaps it’s just a sign of encroaching curmudgeonliness, but I find that as my own age climbs inexorably through the thirties, the less interested I am in the work of writers who are younger than I am. Looking over the much-ballyhooed New Yorker list of “20 under 40,” which came out last week, I felt mostly impatience. After all, as Bill Buford reminded us in 1999, the last time The New Yorker engaged in one of these exercises, there are “remarkably few prodigies” in fiction writing—“it takes years, decades even, before some writers really begin using language as something to make stories with.” If the best, for most if not all of these writers, truly is yet to come, why am I reading them now?
I know why, of course: because young writers deserve encouragement and patronage, otherwise they won’t turn into middle-aged writers; because a couple of the stories—each of the writers chosen gets a story in The New Yorker, and eight of the 20 appear in the current issue—are masterpieces; because there were moments in most of the others that justified their existence. I plan to read the rest of the work as it appears over the next few months. (As a side note, I wish the magazine would make it clearer which of the stories were meant to stand alone and which—such as Gary Shteyngart’s—were actually novel excerpts. And speaking of Shteyngart, I was amused to see that The New Yorker’s editors excised an explicit scene describing oral sex but not the multiple subsequent references to it later in the text, making Shteyngart seem uncharacteristically prudish.)
Reading the issue, I also felt déjà vu. Haven’t we been here before? In addition to the 1999 list, the magazine published “Debut Fiction” issues in 2000 and 2001 devoted to the work of unpublished writers (a few of whom made it to the new list). And Granta, three years ago, came out with its own list of 21 “Best Young American Novelists” that hardly overlapped with The New Yorker’s list. (The differences have to do with taste, not with age—Granta’s cutoff was 35.) In a bow of the head to the inherent randomness of all such lists, the magazine apologetically notes that some writers, such as Dave Eggers and Colson Whitehead, would have been included had they only been born a year later. Charles Bock, Nathan Englander (who was on the 1999 list), and Sam Lipsyte also aged out.