Notes on Literature: The New Yorker's 20-Under-40 List

Posted by Michael Borshuk On 2:39 PM
Behold! The Future of American Literature

So, I finally started making my way through The New Yorker's summer fiction issue, which, this year, features their vaunted 20-under-40 list: i.e. twenty writers who are not yet forty years old, and thus, might be presumed to stand in as the face of American literature for this generation. Or something like that.

I guess my reading tastes have changed over the past decade, or, more grimly, at thirty-six, I have to admit that I may be turning the corner toward curmudgeonly status, because I am much less excited (so far, anyway) about this group than I was at age twenty-five, for the 20-writers-for-the-new-century list that the magazine compiled back in the summer of 1999. Granted, I've only read 2.5 stories thus far, but I swear, I can feel my patience waning. And, in the interest of warding off cliched dismissals of the criticism I am about to voice-- I know, I know, that almost as trendy as a list of young, urbane writers who might possibly best represent their generation is the two-decades old complaint that too much American writing now suffers from the worst qualities of the creative-writing-workshop-revolution: i.e. all style, no substance; much gloss, little profundity. (The ur-text for this line of argument might be John W. Aldridge's 1992 study, Talents and Technicians: Literary Chic and the New Assembly-Line Fiction.)

But. Um. Sometimes, commentary that seems to arise again and again is so ubiquitous because it's, well, true?

That is, I'll just be all upfront and impolite about what I've read so far. Joshua Ferris's story, the ironic yarn about the recovering alcoholic would-be television writer self-destructing at a celebrity party? Come on. The premise is old news; the writing is self-congratulatory in its ironic, wink-wink references to popular culture. And the ending, frankly, seems like low-grade Salinger, ca. "Perfect Day for Bananafish." Sadly, Jonathan Safran Foer's story--and admittedly, I love JSF's novels--is equally flimsy. It's a stylistic exercise; it's a series of poignant details about a relationship; it's playful. But it's just not compelling narrative. While I admire JSF's eye in the piece, and I like the willingness to exploit repetition and to toy with syntax, wouldn't a greater show of his talents (so completely on display, I think, in his first two novels, which are both entertaining and insightful at once) have been to craft those details and that ludic facility with language into something that reads more like a story and less like a litany?

Now, I don't think Jonathan Safran Foer is a creative writing program alum. Ferris? I'm too lazy and annoyed at this point to look up his CV. But both of those stories that I read completely yesterday suffered from that quality that Aldridge associated with creative writing programs (of which, I must admit, too, I am a graduate), and which burned the aging literary critic up so entirely back in 1992. They're clever, these stories, but they feel somewhat empty. I started the third story, Philipp Meyer's "What You Do Out Here, When You're Alone," this morning, over my coffee, and enjoyed the fact that it seemed a little more narrative driven, but even that piece had a too-easy, too-attempting-to-be-clever line of description (a wife described, in unimaginative shorthand, as having adopted a "Martha Stewart look" after moving to a suburban subdivision), that I had to yawn and push the magazine aside.

Anyway, I will continue plowing through all of the stories in the issue, because that's the kind of OCD reader I am, but my first response is a disappointed one. Fitting, though, that I just started having to wear glasses recently. Fitting, that is, because it's a sign of my advancing age, and perhaps directly related to the aforementioned onslaught of curmudgeonly reading tastes. Now somebody get me my slippers and my John Cheever book, before I really get cranky.

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MICHAEL BORSHUK is Associate Professor of African American Literature at Texas Tech University. He is the author of SWINGING THE VERNACULAR: JAZZ AND AFRICAN AMERICAN MODERNIST LITERATURE (Routledge, 2006), and numerous essays, reviews, and encyclopedia entries on African American literature, American modernism, and music. For ten years, from 1999 to 2009, he wrote on jazz regularly for CODA MAGAZINE. His fiction has appeared in ANTIGONISH REVIEW, DALHOUSIE REVIEW, ELYSIAN FIELDS QUARTERLY, SHORT STORY, and 34TH PARALLEL.

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