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 Senna, Paul 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.
Calvin 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.
Mischa 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.
Joshua 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.
Sheila 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.
Benjamin 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.
Joe 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?
Back in 2001, The Onion published a breathless report from a gala awards ceremony: The Fontys. A few dissenting voices groused about the night’s big winner, Helvetica Bold Oblique – “a bold as best font?” – but ebullience carried the night. “‘A million thanks to all the wonderful folks in the font community who believed in Helvetica Bold Oblique,'” said “an ecstatic Oliver Rudd, designer of the font,”Without your faith in my vision, I would not be here before you tonight. I’d also like to thank Helvetica Regular designer James T. Helvetica, the giant upon whose shoulders I stand.Of course this was satire, and its ostensible message served mainly to emphasize a subtext: No one cares about typeface. Some recent reading experiences, however, have me wondering if that’s really true.This summer, I encountered the ultramodern Vendetta font in two books of debut fiction: Anya Ulinich’s Petropolis and Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men. Its polygonal punctuation and strangely shaped gs and ps kept distracting me from the text. I’ve also had problems reading several books from the NYRB Classics series, which has otherwise been justly praised for its attractive design. In each case, an obtrusive font made it hard for me to forget that I was staring at ink on a page. It was hard to distinguish frustration with the typesetting from frustration with the prose itself.Now I’m about three-quarters of the way through John Crowley’s Aegypt Cycle, which Overlook Press has heroically brought back into print. Aegypt is a startling hybrid, part fantasy and part novel of ideas, and, when you’re hip-deep in Daemonomania, a blurb comparing Crowley to Thomas Mann doesn’t seem unjustified. For some reason, however, Overlook has chosen a stylized typeface called Rotis that graphically overemphasizes Aegypt’s connection to genre fiction. Overlook told us that Rotis was chosen because it echoes the “feel” of the book; for me, it overdoes the echo. At times I’ve found myself reading racing along to the next plot-point, rather than slowing down to appreciate Crowley’s rich prose, which deserves the same distinction accorded to other modern masters. I wonder if my experience would be different had Crowley been given the Everyman’s Library treatment – or, indeed, if War & Peace would read differently, printed on copier paper in 12-point Courier.The New Critics taught us that we were supposed to disregard superfluities and focus on the words on the page – but how much does the printing process color our reception of those words? Don’t design choices advance a set of claims for the work – claims that subtly shape our judgment? This seems particularly worth thinking about now that modern technology has made typesetting easier. It would seem to be a fairly simple matter to switch the next print run of Crowley or Gessen or Ulinich to good old Garamond, or to some other font that meets master typographer Matthew Carter’s criteria: clarity is all. Perhaps there are readers out there who care nothing for the superficial, who would just as soon read an airport paperback as, say, a Vintage International trade. I’ve been a little embarrassed to discover I’m not among them.