The READ: The Chosen Ones1
In hindsight, The New Yorker’s track record seems to have been astonishingly good. More than half the writers on the 1999 list—including Michael Chabon, Jeffrey Eugenides, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Franzen, and Jhumpa Lahiri—went on to write books that would be among the decade’s most admired. In the new issue, the editors applaud their past foresight, noting that for many of the writers, their “breakthrough books were still ahead of them.” But to what extent is such a list a self-fulfilling prophecy? These writers have all written terrific books, and no doubt many of them would have broken through without The New Yorker’s imprimatur, but let’s also not discount the role it may have played in helping them get book contracts, reviews, public attention. In other words, the success of the writers on the list is not necessarily a sign so much of the list-makers’ great literary taste or ability to predict the future as it is a sign of the list’s influence.
I have two suggestions (entirely unsolicited, of course) for The New Yorker going forward. First, no repeats: any writer who has already appeared on a New Yorker list should be automatically disqualified. Nell Freudenberger, Jonathan Safran Foer, ZZ Packer (who all appeared in the Debut Fiction issues of 2000 and 2001)—couldn’t we just consider them already anointed? Second, restrict the list to writers of any age who have published a single book. If the goal is really to promote up-and-comers, it’s ludicrous to draw distinctions by age—and unfair to compare a 24-year-old who has yet to publish her first book (Téa Obreht) to a 39-year-old Guggenheim recipient who has already published three (Chris Adrian). Meanwhile, the authors of two of the most exciting debut novels of the last decade—Helen DeWitt, whose amazing The Last Samurai was published in 2000, when she was 43, and Bock, whose novel Beautiful Children I’ve already written enough about—weren’t eligible. The most talked-about novel so far this year is the surprise Pulitzer Prize winner Tinkers, by first-time novelist Paul Harding (born 1967).
Buford, in 1999, recognized how unrepresentative such a “snapshot of a generation,” compiled according to similar standards, would have looked 100 years ago. Willa Cather wouldn’t have been on it—she was 27, with 13 years ahead before her first novel. Edith Wharton, age 37, was known at that point mainly for her book about interior decorating. Theodore Dreiser wouldn’t publish Sister Carrie till the following year. “Seen from here, the year 1899 is remarkable not for its writers but for its toddlers,” Buford wrote—Hemingway, Borges, and Nabokov were all born that year, and Faulkner was “just out of diapers.” The writers on The New Yorker list are guaranteed plenty of attention over the next decade. Let’s keep an eye on the cracks, to see who falls through.