In the ever-changing anteroom of the Great American Novel, young just got younger, and what it means to be an American broadened significantly. On Thursday, Granta magazine announced the lineup for their second Best of Young American Novelists issue at New York’s Housing Works Bookstore.
There are no crystal balls in the literary world, but the Granta list has come close. In 1983, it launched its first salvo at predicting the future with the Best of Young British Novelists, tagging Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes as voices to watch.
The first American list, issued in 1996, included a striking number of bull's-eyes: Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides and Edwidge Danticat among them.
This year, by dropping the age cutoff from 40 to 35, the Granta judges have culled a diverse and entirely new group of names. Five of the authors were born outside of the U.S., two in the former Soviet Union. One hails from China. Another holds an Austrian passport. One lives in Little Rock, Ark.
Here, according to Granta’s judges, is the future of the American novel, and there are some surprises. Marisha Pessl is not on the list, but you will find ZZ Packer, an African-American short story writer. Benjamin Kunkel didn’t make the cut, but Rattawut Lapcharoensap, praised but not well-known for his debut collection Sightseeing, will now be a name to watch.
Welcome to the global village, as it has come to be represented by—and interpreted through—a new generation of American novelists. Judge A.M. Homes, author of This Book Will Change Your Life, sees a sea-change at work. “What it is to be American given each of the backgrounds of these people—it’s not straightforward,” she says. “Many of them are looking at whether you can be an American and all these other things at once.”
Novels about immigrant experience are hardly new to American fiction, even from the most hallowed names. Jack Kerouac, after all, didn’t learn to speak English until he began attending parochial school at age 6; Saul Bellow was born in Canada and wrote about the U.S. forever as an outsider.
The tradition reaches into the short story, too. In the introduction to the Best American Stories of the Century, John Updike wrote that “Immigration is a central strand in America’s collective story.”
But if the Granta list is any gauge, that storyline has shifted, with America becoming the remembering ground for the great boomerang of world events—rather than the dream itself.
Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation conjures the horrific experiences of a West African boy soldier. Akhil Sharma’s The Obedient Father glimpses the corruption and graft of modern-day India through a twisted father-daughter relationship.
Daniel Alarcon was born in Peru, grew up in Alabama speaking Spanish at home and now lives in the Bay Area and writes in English—about events happening back in Lima. “I think what you see here is that we want our interpreters of the world to also be natives of America, too,” he says.
But it’s not just the writers from ethnic backgrounds looking outward. John Wray drew on his mother’s history in Austria to create his debut, The Right Hand of Sleep, a novel about the aftermath of fascism in Europe. Jess Row taught English in Hong Kong, an experience evident in his short story collection, The Train to Lo Wu. Nell Freudenberger is also widely known in Asia, and her stories Lucky Girls and first novel The Dissident both have a globe-trotting aesthetic. Anthony Doerr was born in Ohio; his next book is a memoir about living in Rome with his family.
Judge Meghan O’Rourke, a poet and editor at Slate.com, agrees with Homes that this indicates a big shift from fiction of recent generations. “A lot of these writers are really conscious of America not as a continent adrift on its own,” she says, “but as a force being inflected by the world and inflecting itself on the world.”
This sounds like heavy material, but humorists are also resurgent on the American scene. The New Yorker can be credited for discovering several writers—like 25-year-old Karen Russell—but just as many (from Brockmeier to Alarcon) are fixtures in McSweeney’s, the journal of humor, fiction and prose started by Dave Eggers.
Many of its writers have found a way to funnel loss and political anger through laughter, even if that makes for an uneasy mixture. In Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer’s boy narrator tells fart jokes in one sentence and meditates on Hiroshima in the next. Two blistering satirists—Gabe Hudson and Gary Shteyngart—play recent military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan for cackles.
It’s perhaps not coincidental that nearly a quarter of the list was either born in or lives now in Washington, D.C. (with outliers like Christopher Coake and Maile Meloy hailing from Indiana and Montana respectively). More than half of the novelists attended an Ivy League university.
Homes wasn’t bothered by the implied privilege of this fact. “For the longest time the Ivy League schools were not the schools that turned out fiction writers. I think it’s interesting if there is more of a place for young writers there now—and of course a broader mix of people got to go to college in this generation.”
O’Rourke, herself a graduate of Yale, agreed, but on the principle that you “can actually hold two opposing ideas in your head at the same time,” added that “I was very aware that so few of the writers were talking about class.”
There is, perhaps, a reason for this. During the years this group attended university, political correctness was at its height—leading to a closer examination of identity politics through the prisms of race, gender and ethnicity. Class—the great wedge of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s—was often overlooked.
Critics like Camille Paglia have argued that political correctness was an indulgence, a balkanizing force. But the Granta list bears out that for every excess of introspection, the meditation on roots these ways of thinking inspired can lead to profound acts of imagination.
Take, for instance, the great tradition of Jewish novelists, so long powered by first-generation experience with the Holocaust. Two generations removed, young American novelists continue to engage with the horror of that experience and the Diaspora that followed. It shows up in the work of Nicole Krauss, Dara Horn, Judy Budnitz and Foer.
The judges for 2007 included prize-winning novelist and memoirist Edmund White, City Lights Bookstore buyer Paul Yamazaki, Granta owner Sigrid Rausing, deputy editor Matt Weiland, O’Rourke and Homes.
Homes was left off the magazine’s 1996 list, but was included in a similar round-up of the “20 best under 40” the New Yorker published a few years later, an experience she remembered while making her selections.
“All prizes are to a degree arbitrary,” she said, “they are the mind and mood of the people making the decisions on that hour that day.”
“But it’s tricky with young novelists,” she added, “since they’re still developing. Five years from now, we’ll see some of these people won’t have done much—and others may be the leading lights. But all of them are on the cusp of something.”