The OF Blog: Neither Fish nor Fowl: A look at the speculative writers listed in The New Yorker's "20 Under 40" list

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Neither Fish nor Fowl: A look at the speculative writers listed in The New Yorker's "20 Under 40" list

I've been rather busy the past week or so, too busy to blog at length until now about the little teacup tempest that has brewed over The New Yorker releasing their "20 Under 40" list of writers that they feel may already be or may wind up being somewhat important.  Since I am a subscriber, I suppose it is easy to quote here:

What we have tried to do, in selecting thw writers featured in this issue, is to offer a focused look at the talent sprouting and blooming around us.  These writers (stories by eight of them appear here; twelve more will follow, one at a time, in the next twelve issues) are hardly the only gifted storytellers of their generation.  Some terrific candidates were excluded solely because they didn't have a new piece of fiction available by our deadline.  Others, such as Dave Eggers and Colson Whitehead, would have been on the list had it come out last year; their only mistake was to be on the wrong side of our birthday cutoff.

But, as every writer knows, there can be magic in rules and conventions, and these twenty men and women dazzingly represent the multiple strands of inventiveness and vitality that characterize the best fiction being writen in this country today.  There is the lyrical realism of Nell Freudenberger, Philipp Meyer, C.E. Morgan, and Salvatore Scibona; the satirical comedy of Joshua Ferris and Gary Shteyngart; and the genre-bending titles of Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, and Téa Obreht.  David Bezmozgis and Dinaw Mengestu paint clear-eyed portraits of immigration and identity; Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, ZZ Packer, and Wells Tower offer idiosyncratic, voice-driven narratives.  Then, there are the haunting sociopolitical stories of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Daniel Alarcón, and Yiyun Li, and the metaphysical fantasies of Chris Adrian, Rivka Galchen, and Karen Russell.
So what this pretty much amounts to is that The New Yorker wanted original fictions from 20 writers under the age of 40 for publication purposes that would serve as a representation of some of the many styles and narrative modes that young writers are exploring in their first fictions.  It is, on the surface at least, an honest list, as far as lists go - there were going to be some tough decisions, but at least there seems to have been somewhat of an effort to find quality short fictions from young authors, new and established alike, that covered a broad range which might appeal to the magazine's readership.

Naturally, there was quite a bit of bickering about this.  The most vociferous one that I read (mind you, I did not do more than link surf for a few minutes this past weekend) was posted last week on io9.  All I needed to do was to read the title, "Heads up, New Yorker!  Here's a "writers under 40" list that includes SF authors" to know that the writer of that piece, Charlie Jane Anders, probably did not read that article closely, since a simple reading of the second paragraph will show quite clearly that The New Yorker did, in fact, include authors of SF pieces.  Because it is really hard for Anders to defend comments such as this:

Many of us were left scratching our heads when the New Yorker's list of 20 great writers under 40 included no genre authors whatsoever.
 This is especially baffling to read when Chris Adrian received quite a bit of praise for his angels/post-apocalyptic novel, The Children's Hospital (not to mention that his story "A Better Angel" appeared in Best American Fantasy 1), or that Karen Russell has several stories that have been praised for their fantasy qualities (incidentally, her recent story, "The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach," which appears in Tin House 41, is very much worth tracking down and reading).  But I guess if their collections and novels aren't easily found in the SF/Fantasy part of the bookstore, fantasies such as theirs do not exist for the likes of this io9 columnist and others who were so eager to jump on The New Yorker claiming that it is "biased against SF."

This is an issue that has been close to my heart for the past few months, as I have been reading through dozens and dozens of lit and genre journals and magazines to find 75 or so stories that I believe are worth of consideration for the guest editor, Minister Faust, to select the stories that will appear in Best American Fantasy 4.  It is easy to conceive of "divides" and "warring camps" when it comes to discussing how various literary genres are promoted or excoriated.  But one element that seems to be lacking in pieces such as the io9 one I linked (I easily could have linked to several others which would have had much the same content under different banners and bylines) is a questioning of these presumptions surrounding these various literatures.

If I had to guess, I would guess that quite a few people who rail against publications such as The New Yorker are railing more against this demonized view of what they think that magazine is, rather than what the magazine truly is.  As I noted above, I am a subscriber and I read their columns and fiction pieces.  Although there is certainly more of an emphasis on short, character-driven vignettes than what you'd find in say Asimov's, The New Yorker has also carried several stories of a much more speculative bent over the years.  Sometimes, it takes a bit of questioning of assumptions and having an open mind about what a publication presents for its audience to read.

But this issue goes far beyond one magazine.  There are several reading this piece who may be familiar with the American lit journal, Conjunctions, probably for issues #39, "The New Wave Fabulists," and #52 "Betwixt the Between:  Impossible Realism."  Perhaps they read those issues, easily available online from Amazon and other retailers, and thought maybe it was an attempt to mix "literary mainstream" writers with talented genre writers with mixed results.  The interesting thing is that the majority of Conjunctions issues, or at least the dozen or so that I own and have read, contain overt and subtle fantasies.  Yet when it comes to nominating best anthologies or short stories for the host of SF/F awards out there, only rarely are stories from publications such as Conjunctions, Redivider,Ninth Letter, A Public Place, Glimmer Train,  or Gargoyle Magazine ever mentioned, despite there being some outstanding stories that have appeared in those publications and others that are at least the equals of those stories that do appear.

It is as if for the majority of spec fic readers, such publications and fictions do not exist.  They are neither fish nor fowl.  They are stories of the speculative that appear in "literary" publications, the presumed bastion of mimetic literature, filled to the gills with "establishment" types that presumably like to thumb their noses at the genre hoi polloi.  It is an appealing myth, these warring camps disdaining the other, yet it is ultimately a myth.  While it is certainly true that there are institutions and individual writers and critics who don't have a high opinion of genre literature as they conceive of it being (remember, the demonization can go both ways here), what is becoming more and more apparent with each passing year is that there are quite a few publications that are actively promoting literature that is not limited to Genre category A or B or C.  This sort of literary potpourri approach has produced some fascinating magazine/journal issues and authors who flit between perceived genre boundaries, creating tales that may fly under the radar of those SF mavens, but which are enriching those readers who are fortunate to discover them.

So perhaps instead of just trying to shoehorn "obvious" SF short fiction choices into a rebuttal of another's list, perhaps it might be wise to see if publications such as The New Yorker may have discovered excellent fantasies that you didn't even know existed.  Otherwise, you might run the risk of looking foolish in your ignorance of what is out there.

No comments:

Add to Technorati Favorites