20 More Under 40

June 16, 2010 | 15 books mentioned 46 4 min read

One might have imagined that the emergence of an online kommentariat would have made The New Yorker’s 2010 “20 Under 40” Fiction Issue, released last week, an even bigger buzz engine than its 1999 predecessor. For some reason, though – high humidity in the mid-Atlantic? the preponderance of Knopf and FSG authors? the preexistence of a Granta theme issue with significant overlap? the nebulous formulation “writers who we believe are, or will be, key to their generation”? – the magazine’s list of the best young American fiction writers has met mostly with polite golf clapping.

To be sure, it’s hard to begrudge these 20 terrific writers their honor. We’ve been excited to read in the issue new work from friends (and interested to observe the generational influence exerted by 1999 honoree George Saunders). But, as the accompanying Comment suggests, “to encourage . . . second-guessing is perhaps the best reason to make lists.” And, wishing to see more such second-guessing, we’ve decided to rise to the bait and offer our own, non-overlapping, list of young-ish writers to watch.

The exercise gave us a new appreciation for The New Yorker‘s editorial staff: It turns out to be damn hard to figure out who to call American. (There’s also a shocking number of writers who are 40 this year: Brady Udall, Nathan Englander, Ed Park, Danzy SennaPaul LaFarge…). It’s nice to be reminded, however, as we all wring our hands about the future of fiction, of the preponderance of of thirtysomething talent out there. So, with apologies for obviousness, we hereby present an informal, unscientific, alternate-universe “20 Under 40” list.

  • coverCalvin Baker‘s three works of fiction range fearlessly across the expanse of American experience from the Middle Passage forward. In Dominion, one of several recent novels to tackle the antebellum period, Baker finds his own, hybrid solution to the challenge of voicing the past.
  • Jesse Ball‘s first two novels, Samedi the Deafness and The Way Through Doors, both reviewed here, show off a fabulist sensibility that’s somehow both minimalist and maximalist – Paul Auster by way of The Arabian Nights. Ball won The Paris Review‘s Plimpton Prize for fiction in 2008.
  • Chris Bachelder, author of Bear vs. Shark and U.S.! wields the two weapons all great satirists need: an eye for the absurd and a deep moral sense. For what it’s worth, Bachelder’s remarkable lexicon had at least one reader convinced for a few weeks in 2007 that he was a pseudonym of David Foster Wallace.
  • coverMischa Berlinski‘s first novel, Fieldwork, like the best fieldwork, moves beyond the parochial concerns of the American writing program without resorting to exoticism. It was a National Book Award finalist. Berlinski is currently in Haiti, we’re told, working on another.
  • Tom Bissell, who has lately published nonfiction in The New Yorker, might have been a plausible candidate for inclusion on its list. His first collection of short fiction, God Lives in St. Petersburg, was a finalist for the Believer Book Award.
  • Judy Budnitz is one of America’s great unsung short-story writers. Her two collections, Flying Leap and Nice Big American Baby marry Kafka-esque premises with a ruthless willingness to follow them to their conclusions. Also a novelist, she made the Granta list a couple years back.
  • coverJoshua Cohen, a prolific (and quotably bellicose) 29-year-old, just published his sixth book, a Ulyssean 800-pager called Witz. Expect serious reviews to start appearing in the fall, when people have actually finished the damned thing.
  • Kiran Desai is now a permanent resident of the U.S….or so says Wikipedia. Her 2006 novel, The Inheritance of Loss, was a Booker Prize winner and was on a lot of people’s year-end lists.
  • Myla Goldberg may have lost some credibility with literary mandarins when her first novel, Bee Season, became a Richard Gere vehicle. However, her second novel, Wickett’s Remedy, shows that her ambitions extend well beyond orthography.
  • coverSheila Heti, a puckish Canadian, can be on our list if David Bezmozgis can be on The New Yorker‘s. Her first collection, The Middle Stories, featured fables skewed sui generisly. She’s since published a novel, Ticknor, and appeared as Lenore in Leanne Shapton‘s Important Artifacts.
  • Samantha Hunt‘s most recent novel, The Invention of Everything Else, was a fabulist meditation on Nikola Tesla; her previous piece, The Seas, was similarly inventive. Like Heti and Bissell, she cut her teeth in McSweeney’s.
  • Porochista Khakpour‘s debut, Sons and Other Flammable Objects, showed off her acrobatic voice; recent work in Guernica suggests more of the same.
  • coverBenjamin Kunkel, aside from having mastered the voice of bemused neuroticism in Indecision, has one of the most interesting minds around, as evidenced by his far-ranging criticism in The London Review of Books. A play, Buzz, is forthcoming from N+1.
  • Victor LaValle‘s third book, the splendidly eccentric Big Machine, has been his breakout. A Publisher’s Weekly best novel of 2009, it has won him many fans, including our own Edan Lepucki, who reviewed it here last fall.
  • Fiona Maazel‘s Last Last Chance is one of the most ambitious debuts of recent years, covering plague, addiction, and chicken processing. Maazel was a Lannan Foundation fellow in 2005.
  • coverJoe Meno, unlike any writer on the New Yorker list, published his first few novels with an independent press, Brooklyn’s Akashic Books. A writer of considerable range, the Chicago-based Meno last year published a rollicking family novel, The Great Perhaps, which occasioned an interview with and profile by Edan.
  • Julie Orringer spent the several years of radio silence that followed her feted story collection, How to Breathe Underwater, productively. Her expansive first novel, The Invisible Bridge, has been hailed for its historical sweep and intimate portraiture.
  • Salvador Plascencia‘s memorably and typographically strange novel, The People of Paper, rivals Chris Adrian‘s The Children’s Hospital for the title of Most Interesting Novel McSweeney’s Has Published (Non-Eggers Division). We have no idea what he’s working on now, but we look forward to it.
  • Eric Puchner is the author of Music Through the Floor, a collection that won the NYPL’s Young Lions Award. This year, he published the similarly well-received novel Model Home. His wry essay about being married to the novelist Katharine Noel can be found here.
  • Anya Ulinich‘s debut, Petropolis, rendered the life of a post-Soviet expatriate with Bellovian figurative brio. She’s got a great story called “Mr. Spinach” floating around out there somewhere…hopefully part of a collection?

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  1. I wonder why young adult writers are absent from both 20 under 40 lists. It seems sad that although young adult is a financial powerhouse for publishers, its authors are still not seen as worthy of these types of awards. I hope someday the genre and its authors will be validated for its contribution to the canon.

    For full disclosure, I am a young adult author. I myself am not worthy of this award, but I could name at least twenty who are….

  2. I have a problem with authors who have published only one book being on lists like these, and I’ll tell you why. First novels, be they good or icky, are through the processes of publishing so out of the hands of first novelists themselves, in so many ways, they seldom display everything the writer has in his or her arsenal. And not to knock this list, which is well-deserved on many counts, but almost every first novel should be edited well, not to take out the experimentation or playfulness on the page but to capture the writer’s true voice. Which of course the writer doesn’t fully know, regardless of whether or not he or she has published before. That’s the problem with ostensibly “experimental” fiction: there’s not a defined enough line between playfulness, which is good, and preening, which ain’t.

  3. Gwen — there are no genre writers on this list or on the NYorker, tho’ Victor Lavalle’s work is influenced by horror. I was going to mention Kelly Link as a great short story writer (and sometime writer of YA) worthy of inclusion, but I see she was born in ’69. Damn.

    I’ve only read a couple of the authors on this list — I have the Orringer novel on order. This list seems comparable to the NYorker’s, and is an indication of how there are a lot of pretty good young writers out there.

  4. Laryssa — Kevin Brockmeier is an excellent choice. I’m surprised he wasn’t on either the NYorker or Millions lists.

  5. Is Kevin Brockmeier too old to qualify? He is infinitely better than Yiyun Li, to name just one who made the cut.

  6. Building a bit on Nate’s comment, I don’t think people who’ve published a lot should be considered merely because of their quantity. It’s a thought-worthy issue: where’s the catch-point between quality and quantity that indicates a promising writing career?

    Blake Butler?

    Also: I recognize that Lin continues talking, but–and this is meant in complete friendliness–for some reason I only feel slightly compelled to continue listening.

  7. Lots to ponder here, but I’m just glad that Samantha Hunt made the list! I was bummed she wasn’t in The New Yorker’s list.

  8. Kelly Link, Kevin Brockmeier, yes. Both should have been on there. Maile Meloy, Andrew Sean Greer, Akhil Sharma, Miranda July, Benjamin Percy, Andrew Porter, Paul Yoon, Nam Le?

  9. Am I the only oldie here who doesn’t know a lot of the names? And I read SO MUCH. I just can’t keep up with all the up-and-coming newbies. Kevin Brockmeier yes, and going back several years. David Benioff 40 this year. Karen Russell, 39.

    I read new stuff a lot and many many of the writers I read are way over 40 and have been writing for decades. You know how it is–can’t wait for the new book by X and I have so many of these must reads every year. The NYT had an essay just a short while ago about the fallacy or was it arbitrariness of under 40. Gave examples of first fiction published by major writers in their 50s and later.

    OK, time to read reviews and finagle a little space in my library queue to add some of these under 40 writers.

  10. Anthony Doerr should’ve been on both lists–he’s written three or four of the best stories I’ve ever read, out of authors of any age, any time.

  11. why don’t we create a non-fiction list for the aspiring truman capotes of the world? (one of which would include gladwell & co?)

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  13. I think Tao Lin should be disqualified for posting above (as “Bro”) to nominate himself.

  14. This list is absurd. Leave the list-making up to the professionals.

    Kunkel, the most known person on this list, has only one book out but is still the most deserving. The others are mostly from left field.

    The READERR are the king here, the suggestions given in the comments section would make a better list. John Wray. Ed Park, yes. Tao Lin, yes. Deb Olin Unferth. Dave Benioff. MIRANDA JULY. Nam Le. Maile Meloy. All good ideas.

  15. There is always an under-representation and under-appreciation of genre writers on these lists. Especially when it comes to horror. I find this strange. One of the most influential American writers of this century is Stephen King and the majority of his body of work would be considered speculative in nature. His opinions even have a certain power to direct the buying power of the public when choosing books. Now he’s obviously no longer under 40, but why are those writers who follow in the same chosen genre as him often ignored when making these lists?

    I think what it comes down to is that those who spend the time to make these lists spend little time outside of what other lists have suggested they read. I mean this in no way to insult the writers who appear on the lists. I am positive every one of them is very capable and deserving of the praise they receive.

    However, has anyone on this list heard of Nate Kenyon? “The Reach”, “Bloodstone”, “The Boneyard” and “Sparrow Rock” are powerful books that go beyond simply scare and disgust (as most literary-minded readers assume the point of horror fiction is) to describe the unconquerable endurance of the human spirit in the face of the greatest dangers. Or what about Joe Hill, author of “The Heart-shaped Box”, “Horns” and the short story collection “20th Century Ghosts”? That last collection has some of the most incredible short fiction I’ve read in decades. It was awe-inspiring and many of his well-known contempories agree. He is a rare talent.

    Putting a genre label on great writing doesn’t lessen the beauty of the work, just the willingness of “literary” types to read it.

  16. I just finished “Horns.” It has an emotional depth Hill’s father has rarely been able to achieve.

  17. I have to agree. Hill has come farther than his father in a shorter time — for the most part. I still believe that “Bag of Bones” is an achievement that Hill will take much more time to come close to. “Horns” ties in so many plot elements that are driven by emotion and a reflection of the human race in general that it is hard to point to one aspect that makes it a work of written art. He’s still under 40.

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  19. My copy of WITZ arrived in the mail today — I’ve been flipping through and reading passages – don’t know when I’ll have a free couple of weeks to read it all. From my browsing, it’s clear to me Joshua Cohen deserves a place on the Millions’ list, and I’m surprise he didn’t make The New Yorkers’. The level of ambition and erudition on display is daunting.

  20. Looks like Lee Siegel’s not a Millions reader (not that that’s a surprise, mind you), based on the evidence of this impressively ill-informed paragraph from his screed in the Observer today:

    If fiction were really alive, if it were still the vibrant experience it used to be, then an artistic affront like the “20 Under 40” junior pantheon would be something against which literary people would deploy all their creative energies. . . . Where are the counterlists to The New Yorker’s 20? Where is the mischief in . . . the countless online sites devoted to contemporary fiction? Isn’t such sharp dissent what the Web was supposed to empower?

    I would be willing to cut him more slack if he hadn’t bothered to mention online sites; after all, he might just not realize how much is going on in those venues. But he did mention them . . . without, it seems, having bothered to do any investigating to see whether what he contended wasn’t happening really wasn’t happening.

  21. Chloe Hooper and Nam Le are Australian, and we’re going to hang on to them for as long as we can!

    This is a very interesting list, I’m particularly glad to see Joshua Cohen and Benjamin Kunkel being recognised.

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