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Write On?

May 17, 2007 By:
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Write On? Ten years ago, Granta magazine, which has long been a fixture in British literary life, dedicated an issue to the 20 "Best Young American Novelists." By young, the editors meant under 40; and their choices included Sherman Alexie, Edwidge Danticat, Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen.

The most recent edition revisits the idea, and makes much about the fact that this new crop of American novelists are even younger than before. Twenty-one of them were chosen this time out, and all of them are under 35.

I first heard about the choices on NPR's "Weekend Edition." The host, Scott Simon, interviewed two of the judges, Ian Jack, Granta's editor, and Paul Yamazaki of City Lights bookstore in San Francisco.

The NPR Web site included some interesting tidbits as well. The judges, it was noted, "reasoned that as people seem to be writing and publishing fiction sooner, they have, at least in theory, a head start on their predecessors, and should be getting better, quicker.

"Writing ... is increasingly seen as a career choice by Americans in their early 20s, who attend universities to learn the craft."

Some fallacies run rampant in those paragraphs. Just because writers are publishing earlier doesn't necessarily give them a leg up, even in theory. They might not even know half as much as their predecessors and have simply gotten lucky with editors.

In addition, most people who teach writing -- and are honest with themselves -- generally admit that they can't really teach anybody anything. If they recognize a real writer, they just leave him or her alone -- to write.

During Simon's interview, the two judges said that they'd been looking for interesting use of language and the creation of story. With that in mind, I poked around in the new Granta, and settled on the Jewish writers: Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss (who happens to be his wife; do they come joined at the hip these days?); Dara Horn and Gary Shteyngart. Out of duty, I read their stories to the end, but if I hadn't been so bound, I don't know if I would have gone much beyond the first paragraphs.

Here's an example of the "language" the judges were talking about. This is the opening of Krauss' "My Painter": "When I first met the painter of this picture I'd lost my job and, if I remember correctly, I was reading the poems of the Japanese writer, Shiraishi. I got the book cheaply in a used bookstore and so felt a certain responsibility to it, and sometimes I even went around reciting bits of the poems in my head. Things weren't going well. I was sleeping on the floor of a friend's apartment, a photographer from Berlin who used to take pictures of the plants on his windowsill, a few potted greens that seemed to share a certain wistfulness, as if they had once lived in the great glass and cast-iron hothouses of Europe and didn't know how they'd got to that homely window ledge."

The first paragraph continues like that for several more sentences. You be the judge.


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