A Speculative 20 Under 40, from 40 Years Ago

June 4, 2010 | 14 2 min read

Most people in the literary world are now aware that the New Yorker has selected the “best” 20 writers under age 40. This is a follow-up to the magazine’s 1999 list, which was fairly prescient in spotting some soon-to-be superstars in the book universe. There are some wonderful writers on the new list. The ages range from the early 20’s to right on the cusp of the big 4-0. The list is evenly split between men and women. From the names alone you get a much more international flair this time, reflecting how the world has changed in the past decade. But when you look at the 1999 list and the 2010 list side by side, one must wonder if the predictions will play out in a similar fashion. There is no doubt that within this group there will be some Pulitzers and National Book Awards to throw around. But I do worry if the world had changed so much that these young authors, despite talent or skill, won’t be able to reach the same level as their predecessors.

The majority of these writers are in their mid-to-late 30’s and are just now at the start of what we hope will be a long and fruitful career. But if you look back 40 years to the year 1970, there were many more established, award-winning authors under the age of 40. They were often times both critical and commercial successes. If the New Yorker had released a “20 under 40” list 40 years ago, it might have looked something like this…


Philip Roth
Joyce Carol Oates
Raymond Carver
Donald Barthelme
John Updike
Shirley Hazzard
John Barth
Thomas Pynchon
Susan Sontag
Toni Morrison
Frank Conroy
Ken Kesey
Don Delillo
E.L. Doctorow
Jerzy Kozinski
Hunter S. Thompson
Alice Walker
Michael Crichton
Tom Wolfe
Cormac McCarthy


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chris Adrian
Daniel Alarcón
David Bezmozgis
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
Joshua Ferris
Jonathan Safran Foer
Nell Freudenberger
Rivka Galchen
Nicole Krauss
Yiyun Li
Dinaw Mengestu
Philipp Meyer
C. E. Morgan
Téa Obreht
Z Z Packer
Karen Russell
Salvatore Scibona
Gary Shteyngart
Wells Tower


George Saunders
David Foster Wallace
Sherman Alexie
Rick Moody
A.M. Homes
Allegra Goodman
William T. Vollmann
Antonya Nelson
Chang-rae Lee
Michael Chabon
Ethan Canin
Donld Antrim
Tony Earley
Jeffrey Eugenides
Junot Diaz
Jonathan Franzen
Edwidge Danticat
Jhumpa Lahiri
Nathan Englander
Matthew Klam

Bonus Link: The Risks of Fiction: On The New Yorker Writers Under 40 List

is an author and editor. He has written for publications including Publishers Weekly, Poets & Writers and GOOD, among others. His latest book is The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books. Jeff lives with his wife in Oklahoma.


  1. Nice take on the list with the 70s version.

    For the most part, I think the 2010 list is a good one, and I hope it proves as fruitful as the lineup from 1999 (and yours from 1970).

    Others I would have liked to see on the current roster? Amanda Eyre Ward, Reif Larsen (“The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet” was only sporadically good, but I really loved the book’s inventiveness), John Brandon (“Arkansas” is a weird mind trip, man), Joe Hill (to paraphrase Willie Nelson, the guy can scare the paint off a trailer hitch with his ghost stories), Kevin Brockmeier, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), and Roy Kesey.

  2. Good god, that 1970 list is an absolute murders’ row–a literary equivalent of the 1927 Yankees. I wonder what the revisionist 2010 list will look like in 40 years….hope I’m around to see it.

  3. Pynchon and Thompson’s writing couldn’t be more unlike mine, but what always made me crazy about them is the passion controlled by the craft.

    All of the names on the 2010 list have the craft.

  4. Craft, but what about passion, without which craft is pointless?

    I confess I’m not familiar with most of the names on the list — I’ve read and enjoyed Wells Tower’s collection, liked Foer’s first novel but couldn’t get into the second, and was underwhelmed by Galchen’s novel. (Have read bits from a couple of the others but not enough to form an impression.)

    The 1999 list has what seems to be many more authors I would already have considered to be in mid-career — even when it came out, I would have known most of the names vs. this list, and I read more literary fiction now than I did then. I guess I have a lot of reading to do from the 2010 list.

  5. Nice 1970 list, but I think to be more realistic you’d have to find a few names that we now don’t really now. Plus, someone like say, Cormac McCarthy, wouldn’t have made the list–and that would reflect on the list now.

  6. No passion? What bunk.

    What about Adichie’s Ghosts? http://www.all-story.com/issues.cgi?action=show_story&story_id=250

    What about Alarcon’s City of Clowns? http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/06/16/030616fi_fiction2

    What about Krauss’ Last Words on Earth? http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/02/09/040209fi_fiction

    What about Russell’s Haunting Olivia? http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/06/13/050613fi_fiction

    Even readers like me that tend toward more formally inventive fiction can appreciate their passion and craft and tremendous promise.

  7. In 1970 I was seventeen and had read everybody on that list and met half of them. Now, other than David Foster Wallace I haven’t even heard of anyone on the 1999 and 2010 lists. I have to figure out if I gave up, dumbed down or just died.

  8. I have to point out that there’s no way DeLillo could have POSSIBLY been on the 1970s list… he wrote “Americana,” his not-exactly-stellar first novel, in 1971. Even if it had been published earlier, he doesn’t begin to do his best work until the near-eighties with Running Dog… and of course in the mid-eighties there came the triumvirate of White Noise, Libra and Mao II, all of which remain among the best work of the past 40 years.

    This list and others like it, including the New Yorker’s, are just a practice in literary revisionism, backwards or forwards…

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