In these new American stories, the world speaks
THIS week the British literary magazine Granta, which once printed A.A. Milne and Sylvia Plath and has had an agenda-setting role since its rebirth in 1979, will publish its second “Best of Young American Novelists” issue. This time the list is younger (by design) and less Caucasian (by judge selection) than the talked-about ’96 list that included Jonathan Franzen, Lorrie Moore and 18 others.
This kind of list, of course, always provokes a lot of tea-leaf reading -- as well as high-minded dismissals of its “problematic” nature. This year, one source of discussion is how many of the list’s 21 writers were raised abroad or are nonwhite. Are stories of transnational identity where the literary action is these days? (Some things seem never to change, though: More than half of the chosen writers live in New York City, and the only Southland writer is Maile Meloy, who lives in Los Angeles.)
“All of us agreed on one thing,” Ian Jack, the magazine’s editor wrote in the issue’s introduction. “Ethnicity, migration and ‘abroad’ had replaced social class as a source of tension.... " The Scotland-born Jack points out that a similar transition occurred in British fiction in the ‘80s -- what Salman Rushdie called, in a famous essay, “The Empire Strikes Back.”
After the India-born Rushdie won the 1981 Booker Prize for “Midnight’s Children,” Japan-born Kazuo Ishiguro, Nigeria’s Ben Okri and Sri Lanka-born Michael Ondaatje won the award, and several showed up on Granta’s “Young British Novelists” lists. Foreign-born and “nonwhite” writers have won the Booker, in fact, since the award’s very earliest years.
But Jack sees the U.S. as ahead of Britain on this score.
“Mostly because of the empire, we had an early experience of the phenomenon America’s now having,” he said. “But what’s happening in the States is much broader than what happened here -- really what happened here came out of India, and one or two parts of Africa.”
In the U.S., by contrast, “you have pretty much everywhere represented: Eastern Europe, South America, India, China, Korea.” The list includes Peru-born Daniel Alarcon and China-born Yiyun Li, who both live in Oakland and are two of the seven writers on this list who were born abroad, as compared with only one in ’96.
“Globalization came after what happened in Britain, which was a post-colonial, post-imperial phenomenon, really,” Jack said.
And that globalization, of course, has shaped the changing demographics of the U.S. “There has been a lot of recent migration to the States from places that would have been quite a rarity 25 years ago, like India, Nigeria and Peru. There are simply more of those people in the States than there were before. And that’s bound to show up eventually in writing, especially if these people are middle class.”
He added that a lot of the 100 or so novels he read for his role as judge show writers, regardless of ethnicity, newly interested in the outside world.
Novelist Edmund White, one of the judges, referred in his notes on the list to “what might be called the Peace Corps novel, written about the encounter of the young, privileged American with the developing world.”
Some of what Jack read involved native-born Americans abroad, uncomfortable with their status.
“And a lot of these writers are writing about where they come from,” he said. “Yiyun Li for one. So they’ve imported these lives and experiences at a time, perhaps, when American is opening, more receptive to the world outside itself, in a way that it wasn’t before. That may be because it’s much less certain in its political and cultural role in the world than it was even 10 years ago.”
Still, some observers saw little significance in the list’s ethnic balance.
Laura Miller, a well-regarded critic of books and culture, was skeptical that immigration, as a theme, was at the leading edge of literary concerns these days. “It’s nice that it’s so mixed in terms of race and national background. And there’s certainly a contingent -- critics, book section editors, other writers -- that thinks that immigrant stories are the compelling stories of our time. I don’t really agree with that.”
The real themes in American fiction these days, she said, are the seeking of “authenticity” -- which sometimes works itself out in stories about immigrant communities -- and interpreting the highly mediated, pop-suffused culture.
These themes tend to work against each other: In short, she said, “Writing about immigrants saves you from having to write about mass culture,” a topic literary writers, young or white or ethnic or otherwise, generally fear.
“American novels have an extremely ambivalent relationship to mass culture and have a very difficult time coming to terms with it,” she said. “Because it’s supposed to be the opposite of all the things that people want from literature. People would just rather avoid it,” and writing about ethnicity or migration allows them to.
Some of the issue’s judges -- besides Jack and White, novelist A.M. Homes, Slate’s Meghan O’Rourke, Granta Publisher Sigrid Rausing and City Lights’ Paul Yamazaki -- were dismayed by the lack of attention to social class in the work of these young novelists across the ethnic and national spectrum.
O’Rourke, for instance, noted that the U.S. is increasingly economically polarized, but the young writers she read didn’t seem particularly interested. She made a pitch to the other judges to look for writers with less posh backgrounds, or who seem interested in classes besides their own.
Jack too was disappointed to see so few novels reaching outside the middle or upper classes, especially in contrast to the days, just a decade ago, when Raymond Carver-influenced trailer-park novels were in vogue. (Even if they were often written by trust-fund kids, he noted.)
“In America all class analysis is forbidden,” White wrote in his assessment. “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.”
“American novels,” said Jack, “have become a bit like American films used to be. The question of money, of how do I keep myself alive, those questions were never addressed in American films because everybody was supposed to be jolly happy all the time and living well; their troubles were not financial.”
And the reason may come from the increasing class insularity of the literary life.
“To go through this process of creative writing schools, now, to become a budding novelist, more and more means you need a certain amount of ancestral wealth. I hate to sound like a Marxist, but economics does govern a lot of life, especially cultural life.”
Under the radar
LORIN STEIN, an editor at Farrar Straus & Giroux, said the list -- despite the constriction of shifting the age of inclusion from 40 to 35, designed largely for the sake of generating fresh names -- is about as good a list of young novelists as one could assemble.
But the stakes, he said, are lower these days than they were when literary types despaired over the fact that David Foster Wallace and Michael Chabon had been left off the ’96 list, which had an important canon-making role.
“I’m not going to be able to walk into a party, or a bar, and get into that fight now,” he said. “Because that discussion is over. The readership has fractured, and reads less, and spends more time e-mailing. And it makes less sense to talk about novelists now -- the really creative writing is being done in other genres” such as the personal essay, reportage and criticism.
“The novel has become like landscape painting,” he said. “It’s the ‘top’ genre, but not, in real life, the main one.”
An event related to the issue, including readings by Anthony Doerr, Maile Meloy and ZZ Packer, will be held at the UCLA Hammer Museum on May 6.
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Granta’s Young Americans
The quarterly has chosen these 21 writers for its second “Best of Young American Novelists” issue, which comes out Tuesday.
*--* Name Born Birthplace Lives Daniel Alarcon 1977 Lima, Peru Oakland Kevin Brockmeier 1972 Little Rock, Ark Little Rock Judy Budnitz 1973 Atlanta San Francisco Christopher Coake 1975 Indianapolis Reno, Nev. Anthony Doerr 1973 Cleveland Boise, Idaho Jonathan Safran Foer 1977 Washington, D.C Brooklyn, N.Y. Nell Freudenberger 1975 New York New York Olga Grushin 1971 Moscow Washington D.C. Dara Horn 1977 Short Hills, N.J New York Gabe Hudson 1971 Austin, Texas New York Uzodinma Iweala 1982 Washington, D.C New York Nicole Krauss 1974 New York Brooklyn, N.Y. Rattawut Lapcharoensap 1979 Chicago Brooklyn, N.Y. Yiyun Li 1972 Beijing Oakland Maile Meloy 1972 Helena, Mont Los Angeles ZZ Packer 1973 Chicago Pacifica, Calif. Jess Row 1974 Washington, D.C Princeton, N.J. Karen Russell 1981 Miami New York Akhil Sharma 1971 Delhi, India New York Gary Shteyngart 1972 Leningrad, USSR New York John Wray 1971 Washington, D.C Brooklyn, N.Y.