I have just finished reading the last issue of the New Yorker with its pages full of the words of fiction writers (New Yorker, June 14th, 2010). Yes, this would be the much-debated 20 Under 40 Summer Fiction issue. As is the case with this magazine among magazines, some stories were wonderful, others, despite the accolade being given, were relatively kind of sort of meh. 'The Kid' by Salvatore Scibona, and 'The Pilot' by Joshua Ferris, and 'What you do out here When You're Alone,' by Philipp Meyer, were particularly inspiring, but all of the stories had something to teach the writer-reader.
A list that was, perhaps, missed by those on this side of the pond was the one in the UK Telegraph, which contains a determinedly multi-cultural list of 20 under 40, among whom my personal favorite is Rana Dasgupta who is composed in equal measures of intellectual brilliance, innate talent and natural grace, a combination that is not always common among the literati. The Telegraph's literary critic, Lorna Bradbury, goes to great length to explain the history behind these selections, their purpose and their rationale, something the New Yorker does not do; as a matter of fact, the only explanation within the issue is this: "Twenty young writers who capture the inventiveness and the vitality of contemporary American fiction." More importantly, the Telegraph talks about the limitations of an under-40 list:
The underlying assumption of any list highlighting a younger generation is that writers produce their best work in their mid-thirties, once their writing has matured. But for every novelist such as Martin Amis or Graham Swift, who featured on the 1983 Granta list, and produced their breakthrough and arguably their best books around this time (Money and Waterland respectively), there is a Hilary Mantel, whose Wolf Hall, the novel that crystallised her reputation and which she said she had been waiting all her life to write, was published only last year, when she was in her late fifties.
It is historically true that women have tended to come to novel-writing later in life, often after having children -- take Jane Gardam, for example, or Penelope Lively. Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor of the New Yorker has argued that this no longer holds for American novelists -- but the trend has not entirely gone away in Britain. Francesca Kay's An Equal Stillness, perhaps the most exciting first novel of the last couple of years, was published when the author was 51.
Is it really true that the trend is changing for female American novelists? In an article titled 'How Old Can A Young Writer Be?,' (NYT Books, June 9, 2010), Sam Tanenhaus hammers home the so-called "essential truth about fiction writers... they often compose their best and most lasting work when they are young." The giants Tanenhaus mentions include Ishiguro, Flaubert, Thomas Mann, Tolstoy, Proust, Fitzgerald, Kafka, Melville, Faulkner, Mailer, Updike, Pynchon and, of course, Hemingway. There is one woman in this list: Joyce Carol Oates. Those writers who matured into even greater novelists, according to Tanenhaus, include Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Don DeLillo and Virginia Wolf. I wonder if it occurred to Tanenhaus that the entire notion of producing not simply works of fiction -- for, in truth, it is simpler -- but entire cohesive family units and, hopefully, spiritually and physically nourished children within amply supported communities and schools, all of which has fallen predominantly upon the shoulders of women rather than men, might get in the way of women writers? His list alone ought to have given him a clue as to why most women produce their best work in later years. It has been said that raising children is like being pecked to death by chickens. I wonder how many of these male writers could truly produce great works of literature while undergoing death by chickens. I'm just saying.
The other distinction made by the Telegraph is that there is a preponderance of interest in writers who emanate from American writing programs, particularly Iowa:
The lists generated by the New Yorker and Granta are interesting as much for what they reveal about a country's fiction as about the concerns of a writing generation. Though creative writing courses such as the pioneering one at the University of East Anglia have taken off in Britain, their presence is nothing like as pervasive as that of institutions such as the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the States. "Writing is more developed as a craft in America," says John Freeman, "and American writers are constantly engaged with the question of being American. There is no similarly defining issue over here." It is notable that most of the writers on the New Yorker list came though a creative writing programme - and many now teach on one.
In an effort to give credit to the multitude of writers who give blood, sweat and tears to their passion every day, Dzanc Books released an alternate list today, June 25th, 2010, a list weighted in favor of the short story form, and which includes Ben Percy (Refresh, Refresh, Graywolf) Matt Bell (How They Were Found, forthcoming from Keyhole Press) Samantha Hunt (The Invention of Everything Else), Houghton Mifflin), Laura van den Berg (What the World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us, Dzanc Books) and Lori Ostlund (The Bigness of the World, ), all of whom are exceptionally gifted writers. While Executive Editor Dan Wickett notes that the compilation came through consultation with "100 independent publishers, literary bloggers, agents, and book reviewers all over the country," with two -- albeit deserving -- books among the twenty published by Dzanc Books, the criticism Wickett chooses to level against the New Yorker can also be leveled at Dzanc: the New Yorker favors its own in exactly the same way that the Indies favor theirs. The result, then, of all these orchestrations is not something definitive but, rather, as the Telegraph puts it, lists that are useful "for what they reveal about a country's fiction (as well as the) concerns of a writing generation." In that sense, all three lists mentioned, the New Yorker, The Telegraph and Dzanc Books, are useful when considered together to the extent that literature reveals the preoccupations of a particular political and historical moment, and those preoccupations are never the purview of a single identifying body but, rather, a collective.
In the end, though, the most useful commentary comes from that determined outsider who has the pulse of all the insiders, Steve Almond, whose essay in The Rumpus carried the subtitle, "A special Rumpus lamentation with possible added pep talk." From illuminating the unassailable fact that all of the writers who are recognized by these lists are deserving of such recognition, to explaining why 85% of writers will feel wounded by them ("The truth is, I recognize the limits of my talent and drive. That's the whole problem. I'm just good enough - as a writer and a reader - to recognize my spot in the pecking order. It feels slightly cruel to have that place by affirmed by the magazine I worship."), Almond brings all of us full circle to what actually matters in the end:
It is perfectly natural -- perhaps inevitable -- to dream of being "discovered" and rocketed to the top of the Bestseller list. As Americans, we've been trained to dream in this way. But the real life of a writer resides in showing up at the keyboard every day, with the necessary patience and mercy, and making the best decisions you can on behalf of your people. It's a slow process. It often feels hopeless, more like an affliction than an art form. Most of us will have to find our readers one by one, in other words, and against considerable resistance. If anything qualifies us as heroic, it's that private perpetual struggle. Put down the magazine, soldier. Forget about the other guy. Remember who you are.
We all have our own lists of favorites, mine right now include Lorraine Adams, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Preeta Samarasan,Cormac McCarthy and Rana Dasgupta, but the subtext is precisely what Steve tells us: there are few universal favorites, there are only those that matter to us in our personal journey as writers.