Modulomag Art Notes: What’s in a List? The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40″

This summer The New Yorker released its list of the “20 Under 40” fiction writers who, according to Deborah Treisman, the magazine’s fiction editor, are believed to be, “or will be, key to their generation.” As narrow and opinionated as such a list undoubtedly is, it’s no surprise that it has been met with some question and a certain amount of criticism. In a featured comment on the list the editors wildly justify their picks by comparing their first attempt in fiction record in 1999, which boasts writers such as Juno Diaz and David Foster Wallace, whose greatness was obviously foretold within the magazine’s very pages. While the subject is alluring and it has since entertained a sprawling readership, effectively the “20 under 40” is just another list resembling the talent catalogues of Granta and other literary journals, which do more to validate their soverign right to pick and choose than having anything to do with the actual written work.

It seems that nowadays list-making is essential to the literary merit of writers, and The New Yorker is no newcomer. But what does this prove, that lists are entertaining, they are popular, adding to the celebrity of the literati, even going as far as creating a marker, an artifact of the cultural climate. When making a list one tends to follow strict rules of selection; lists, by their very nature, outline purpose. The New Yorker has taken on the responsibility of defining something as vague as a cultural climate. But can you really say who writing today (that is, of who is published) is the most innovative in our world of letters?

Along these lines, believing that a thorough list should include authors both known and up and coming, as it were, the editors were careful to pick those who have had their brush with literary stardom, and those of lesser fame who have either began writing recently, or which is most often the case, have only begun getting published. Of course its no mistake that the list is evenly divided into half men and half women, along with the custom mixture of those born in and outside of the States. The age-spectrum is merely a way of maintaining an artificial limit, trying to stuff as much socio-political range into 20 individuals. Why else would you include a 24-year-old woman from Serbia who doesn’t even have a book out?

What seems so daunting about this particular list is the choice of age as its constraint, rather than something more specific like, 20 immigrant writers, or 20 who write historical fiction. Age here is not random, and there is an allusion to genius that permeates throughout the list that gives the opinion of the editors of The New Yorker an overwhelming sense of power, entrusting themselves with the omniscience to carve out 20 authors and predict their influence.

In their comment the editors seem to make a colossal promise to inspire and captivate audiences by casting a broad net over the authors chosen for their genre, gender and style. As the saying goes, only time will tell if the list proves to be a successful marker of current and lasting prose, or if the faith we put into such lists will be unrewarded and those fortunate enough to “make it” prove to be false (if not increasingly unread) prophets to a generation of already errant readers.

-Olivia

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