Best of Young American Novelists 2: Introduction
When Granta published its first Best of Young Novelists selection in 1983, the words ‘young’ and ‘novelists’ were an unusual combination. Few people in Britain connected serious fiction with youth. Publishing was felt to be a mature or even elderly trade. Cartoonists drew publishers as men in tweed waistcoasts who smoked pipes, and the typical successful novelist as a well-settled householder in Hampstead, Oxford or a country rectory. Plenty of writers didn’t conform to the caricature—1983’s Best of Young British Novelists welcomed a generation that included Rushdie, Martin Amis, Ishiguro and McEwan—but only in the worlds of music and fashion did youth tend to be taken as an absolute recommendation, a quality to flaunt. It was, perhaps, a mark of publishing’s conservatism that in 1983 Granta’s definition of a young novelist was one under the age of forty.
We held to that rule over the next twenty years. Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists for 1993 and 2003 and its first Best of Young American Novelists in 1996 all took forty as the cut-off point. For the second Best of Young American Novelists we have lowered it by five years—everybody in this issue was born after 1970 and the oldest of them turned thirty-five in 2006. We reasoned that as people seem to be writing (and publishing) fiction sooner—it’s increasingly seen as a career choice by Americans in their early twenties, who attend universities to learn it—they have at least in theory a head start on their predecessors and should be getting better, quicker. We also reasoned that, had we stuck to forty as the upper age limit, several writers in the 1996 selection (Sherman Alexie, Elizabeth McCracken, Edwidge Danticat) might need to be included again, and that the selection of others aged between thirty-five and forty (Dave Eggers and Jhumpa Lahiri are two examples) would give the list too great a sense of establishment and déjà vu.
We made one other change. In 1996 there was a pyramid of judgement in which five regional judging panels read and sifted the work of authors who lived in their region—West, Midwest, South, Mid-Atlantic and New England—and then submitted shortlists to the national judges, so that the final list of twenty was chosen from fifty-two writers rather than a few hundred. I came to the process late as a national judge and the recently appointed editor of Granta, and for reasons I can never understand the national judges were denied sight of a few writers who certainly (and not just with hindsight) should have been on the national shortlist. Where were Nicholson Baker, David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon, Richard Powers, Donna Tartt? Not present: discarded by folks elsewhere. This time I decided that all the mistakes would be our own—that we wouldn’t be outsourcing anything to judges with God-knows-what axes to grind in California or Kansas. Granta asked for submissions early in 2006 and received nearly 200 books and manuscripts from publishers and agents. Editors at Granta read all of them, if not always all of all of them, and by spring had the elements of a shortlist which with some later additions ran to seventy-five writers. The judges were free to call in books from any writer who had been excluded from the shortlist and reinstate them for consideration, or to put forward any writer we had somehow completely overlooked. One or two did so. There were six judges: A. M. Homes and Edmund White, novelists and memoirists; Sigrid Rausing, Granta’s publisher; Meghan O’Rourke, culture editor of Slate; Paul Yamazaki of City Lights bookstore in San Francisco; and me as the chair. We read through spring and summer and into the fall.
What kind of picture of new American writing emerged? I would say a very different one from the first exercise in 1996. In that year the novelist Robert Stone, one of my fellow judges, memorably wrote that ‘an almost obsessive pursuit of “authenticity”, and a narodnik romance with land and ordinary people’ was still evident in the work of young writers, despite the fact that many of them were suburbanites. (Or perhaps because of it; as Stone wrote, ‘The European-descended writers could be described as post-ethnic and post-regional, in other words beyond the forces that informed much American writing in the past. Aware of this deprivation, they write in pursuit of it.’) A cruder and unfairer way of putting this would be to say that writers wrote about trailer parks with little experience of living in them, and that the influence of Raymond Carver and ‘realism’ lay heavy on creative writing schools.
However merely voyeuristic it may have been, that interest in social class has ebbed. A few years ago Zadie Smith noted in her introduction to an anthology of stories by young Americans (The Burned Children of America, 2003) that their tone could be summed up by one word—’sad’—and that ‘fear of death and advertising’ were two prominent concerns. Things seem to have moved further down that road, certainly so far as death is concerned. In story after story, novel upon novel, he appeared with his hood and scythe, sometimes suddenly in a car smash but more often in the long prelude of cancer or dementia. There were the dead, there was the memory of the dead, and sometimes there were the post-dead, surviving in the Life Hereafter. ‘Why so sad, people?’ asked Zadie Smith. It would be easy to reach for 9/11 or even our awakening to environmental apocalypse as the cause—or more trivially, literature often being prompted by other literature, the earlier success of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. I don’t know. Death is a preoccupation at both ends of life, among children, who haven’t learned to ignore it, and among adults whose age or health brings them close to the inevitable fact. In prosperous societies not torn apart by civil conflict, it usually seems furthest away between the ages of, say, fifteen and forty. But many of our books written by writers within that age group were infused by loss and the feeling that present things would not go on forever. Reading them reminded me of the boom in spiritualism and Ouija boards that followed the First World War, or Powell and Pressburger’s eerie film A Matter of Life and Death, which tried to console the bereaved of the Second.
They also gave the impression of America as a very uncertain country. This may be what it has recently become, but fiction doesn’t always catch up with reality so quickly. The condition of just being an American, especially when not in America, produced an interesting anxiety in several writers (for example, Tom Bissell and Tony D’Souza). Just as America is no longer so confident, American writing is no longer so snugly self-contained, as other judges were quick to notice. Meghan O’Rourke wrote, ‘I was struck by the degree to which American writers are looking outward… There’s a sense now that to be an American fiction writer is to deal with America in the world—and the world in America. If in the past American fiction dealt with the rest of the globe by trying hard to assimilate it, today it deals with it by going outward towards it.’ Edmund White noted ‘what might be called the Peace Corps novel, written about the encounter of the young privileged American with the developing world. Often his idealism is sorely tested by cynical insurgents or by poorer but more worldly foreigners.’
All of us agreed on one thing: ethnicity, migration and ‘abroad’ had replaced social class as a source of tension despite the fact, as O’Rourke pointed out, that the gap between the wealthy and poor in the United States is wider than ever. ‘In America all class analysis is forbidden,’ said White. ‘It’s as if the conflict and alienation offered in, say, the British novel by encounters with members of other, lower social classes are replaced in America by contrasts of first and third world cultures.’ But then a lot of what we considered the most interesting writing came from America’s newest migrants. In this volume a third of the contributors were born or raised in other countries, including Russia, China, Peru, India, Nigeria and Thailand. (The 1996 volume contained only one.) This is a tremendous variety, though it becomes less various when examined through the prism of class. Of 2003’s Best of Young British Novelists, sixty per cent attended the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Anyone who expected literary production to have a broader social base in the United States will be disappointed. At least fourteen of the twenty-one Best of Young Americans were schooled in the Ivy League and universities of equal expense and reputation, such as Stanford and Oberlin. As O’Rourke said by way of explaining the thematic absence of social division, ‘There are still far too many talented young writers who lack financial independence and can’t find ways to make their voices heard.’
Nearly all our chosen (and unchosen) writers also attended writing school; four went to Iowa. A lot has been written about the ‘factory fiction’ and ‘industrial production’ of writing schools—I have written a share of it myself. One result of writing schools is a vast number of short stories; in London, Granta gets several dozen every week with US postage on the envelope. Most are none too interesting but a few are good, and deny the idea put forward recently by an American critic, Elif Batuman, that ‘the American short story is a dead form, unnaturally perpetuated’. Reading the submissions, it seemed to us that many story collections deserved as much if not more attention than the novels, that there were great liveliness and insight in them and that often, given their binding structure of character and location, they were nearly novels in any case. This accounts for our extending the list to twenty-one rather than twenty and also for the number of writers on our list (seven) who have yet to publish a novel.
We met to decide the list in a New York hotel in late October. The meeting went on all day, names were traded, none of us got our own way, all of us had disappointments. Ed White regretted the omission of Benjamin Kunkel (‘His novel Indecision was a delirious piece of imaginative writing’), Meghan O’Rourke was sad that Dean Bakopoulos didn’t find general favour (‘Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon is a really incisive and clear-headed portrait of class boundaries in America’). Paul Yamazaki was sorry about Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum and her ‘very strange’ book Madeleine is Sleeping. I missed Nick Arvin, Benjamin Markovits, Julie Orringer and, especially, Joshua Ferris, whose first novel, Then We Came to the End, struck me as a brilliant account of the desperations of working life and had the singular distinction among all these writers of making me laugh aloud quite often.
No list of this kind can offer anything approaching a final judgement. That is up to posterity, if there is one. In the meantime, here is our provisional and partial portrait of who was young and wrote good fiction in America in the early years of the twenty-first century. I would like to thank all the judges, publishers, agents and of course writers who made it possible.