A few weeks ago, big news around publishing was that The New Yorker had come up with a Twenty under Forty list, which was ostensibly meant to increase commenting by increasing controver–er. I mean, it was supposed to tip the New Yorker’s top hat at a small group of writers the illustrious, uber-prestigious publication deemed worth mentioning as either writers to watch or writers who were having some effect on literature. I can’t find the list, but I located some commentary on it on their website.
It’s full of the usual names of the young-ish literati. Jonathan Safran Foer, of course, as well as his wife, Nicole Krauss. Gary Shteyngart and Joshua Ferris. Lots of others.
Not really an interesting list. The mag might as well have said “Here’s a random list of forty young writers whose short stories we’ve published over the last decade, or whose books we’ve breathlessly reviewed. Now allow us to pat ourselves on the back for honoring the new literati.”
It’s kind of a sad list, if only because I can’t really see any surprises on it, nor any names the appearance of which would compel me to purchase a book. The mag claims, of course, “these twenty men and women dazzlingly represent the multiple strands of inventiveness and vitality that characterize the best fiction being written in this country today.”
And I just read those names and think: “Really?”
I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. I just don’t get these sorts of writers on these sorts of lists. The Telegraph UK published their own list of writers they suggest may be Britain’s best novelists under forty, but sadly, I’ve only heard of two of the names on that list (Zadie Smith and China Mieville).
I try to read a lot of books. Even besides the fact that all writers should, I start writing because I loved reading. I tend to write books that I want to read, books I need to write because no one else has done so already and if I don’t, I’ll never get to read them. I’m not one of those writers who says things like “Writing is like breathing” or “I do it because I can’t not.” I don’t do it because I think it’s a calling. I do it because I love writing and I love stories.
I tend to not so much enjoy the books of most of the writers these lists name, and I guess I’m trying to figure out the disparity. I like to think I enjoy good writing. I know I enjoy good stories. Some of the books I love, though, go without much acclaim or mention. Lots of books by writers I think are terrific, who write fun, engaging books, but who will probably never be called “important” by The New Yorker. Or the Telegraph UK.
And I don’t mean just Stephen King and J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman here. And not even just because none of them are eligible for reasons of age. I wonder if Gaiman would have been included were he younger; this past decade, from American Gods to The Graveyard Book certainly cemented him as a great novelist.
I’m thinking, too, of writers I know from The Nervous Breakdown. I mean, I don’t know the ages of everyone on the site, but I’m pretty sure its founder, Brad Listi, is under 40, and even besides the site arguably should be mentioned for Attention. Deficit. Disorder. alone. Regardless, I know there are a lot of young writers on the site (disclaimer: I’m one of them), all of whom are hungry.
I think it worries me because one of my primary concerns is knowing what people want to read, what makes a good book, and the fact that sometimes those two ideas don’t come together. Most of the time, in fact. I’m thinking about the sometimes huge division between books that sell a billion copies and books that receive critical acclaim.
Some of them I get. I still don’t really understand Twilight, but give me a book like The Da Vinci Code and I’ll tell you I can see how and why it worked; Dan Brown may have a lot to learn about writing, but the man’s a genius at structure and plotting and pacing. A little like Patterson, in fact. We’re not going to say their writing is subtle or clever, probably not that it’s any more than just “gets the job done,” but that’s okay, because we’re not reading their books for nuance and clever turns of phrase. We’re reading them for story and idea.
Maybe it’s the opposite for someone like Safran Foer or Ferris. I tried reading the latter’s Then We Came to the End, but I never made it past much of the beginning. I managed to finish Foer’s second book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and I liked it but didn’t really love it. I thought it tried a little too hard to be clever.
I guess what gets me is that in neither of them did I notice a particular elevation of style I thought impressive, so far as writing goes.
Of course, I say this but must admit that my favorite writer is Jonathan Carroll, whose books have made my jaw drop on countless occasions. Not a very good storyteller, in terms of structures and plots–maybe a little too steeped in magical realism–but the man can devastate with writing.
I guess I just worry, hopefully more as a reader than as a writer. Because if that New Yorker list is true, if those listed really are producing the best of American literature right now . . . I’m not a huge fan of the best of American literature. I feel, in fact, like I’m losing a lot of love for books in general. Lately, while querying, knowing that the Sarahs and the Jersey Shore are getting book deals while I’m not has been frustrating, but I don’t know if that’s frustrating as a reader or as a writer.
Sure, I know it’s certainly partly the latter. But I’ve begun to realize there’s a lot of the former in it, too, because publishers in general seem to just keep publishing more and more, throwing more at the wall and hoping it sticks, and I browse the shelves (or, lately, read the blogs) and find nothing to be really excited about. I’m not excited about Safran Foer or Beck, Palin or Shteyngart, Silverman or Ferris. I’m not even excited about the new Stephen King books. Hell, I picked up the latest Bond novel, Devil May Care, and even that didn’t do it for me.
I know it’s partly my tastes have evolved. I used to love Koontz, for example, but haven’t read anything by him in ages. But it’s also that I can’t figure out what my tastes have evolved toward.
When the choices are Palin or Ferris, Brown or Safran Foer . . . no wonder so many people are writing and reading more online. At least there seems some hope of finding something good. It’s not ADD, not short-attention span theater; maybe it’s that we can’t find anything good enough to hold our attention very long anymore.