Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

How to Make the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40

Move to Brooklyn, read Marilynne Robinson, toil on your first book for at least three years and doubt yourself endlessly.

I have a confession to make: I’ve submitted unsolicited fiction to the New Yorker. Wait—there’s more. It was the first piece of fiction I ever wrote, a short story for an adult education class that I attended for two hours each Wednesday evening last winter. At the time, I thought it was a good story. My instructor—a published author of fiction, unlike me—loved it. “You can write!” she scribbled in sloppy red pen down the margins of my masterpiece.

Praise from a real writer! It was like I’d been accepted into a secret literary club, one New Yorker publication away from a lucrative book deal and a New Hampshire cabin. And so I attached all 4,452 words of my story to a brief e-mail and sent it off—[email protected] And then I waited, and waited some more. And, eventually, absolutely nothing happened.

I thought my story had all the elements—an engaging plot, characters you love to hate, a surprise ending. Where did I go wrong?

A couple weeks ago, in its Summer Fiction issue, the New Yorker published a list of the top twenty fiction writers under the age of forty, as judged by the New Yorker. (The issue featured work by eight of the authors, with the remaining twelve to come later.) Most of the names are unsurprising. Jonathan Safran Foer, for instance, was once featured in a Malcolm Gladwell essay exploring the roots of artistic brilliance. Tea Obreht, on the other hand, is relatively new to the literary world, with only two published stories and not even a Wikipedia entry to her name. Without a doubt, all of these writers will go on to craft great works of fiction. Four of the writers on a similar 1999 New Yorker list later wrote their way to a Pulitzer.

Last week, interviews with all twenty of the list makers were posted on the New Yorker’s website. The questions were standard—“Who are your favorite writers?” and so on. But the answers, if analyzed correctly, could provide a glimpse into the world of literary genius. So I decided to put nine years of post-high school science education to the task of sifting through the data in an attempt to understand just what it takes to be a successful fiction writer. Four things stood out:

1) Move to Brooklyn

“To write fiction,” replied Aldous Huxley to a question about writing while on acid, “one needs a whole series of inspirations about people in actual environments.”  For the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40, that actual environment is decidedly the gentrified, hipster-filled borough of Brooklyn. A full fifth of the list lives in Brooklyn, including the husband-and-wife literary duo of Jonathan Safron Foer and Nicole Krauss. Two more live on the island of Manhattan. One list-maker claims to simply live in New York City, borough undisclosed. In fact, almost half of the writers on the list—nine of the twenty—reside in the state of New York. Oakland, California, and Austin, Texas—the next-most-cited cities of residence—are each home to only two of the authors.

2) Read Marilynne Robinson

In the search for literary inspiration, just as important as where you live is who you read. When asked to list their favourite writers over the age of forty, out of the thousands of possibilities, the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 repeated several of the same names. Six mentioned Marilynne Robinson, whom I have never read; Edward P. Jones—whom I have also never read, nor even heard of before writing this piece—and Mary Gaitskill were each picked five times. Toni Morrison and Lydia Davis each received four nods. Five of the writers, perhaps misinterpreting the spirit of the question, named dead authors to their favourite-over-forty list. (Franz Kafka and Homer each got two dead-author name-checks.) And Dave Eggers—who, at the age of forty-one, is still alive but slightly too old for the list the New Yorker claims he otherwise would have made—is not, apparently, an inspiration to any of his younger colleagues. Perhaps they didn’t realize he was so old.

3) Toil, toil for years

Even with all the inspiration in the world, writing fiction is still hard work. It takes effort and, typically, vast amounts of time. You must toil at the task for years to be successful. All of the writers on the New Yorker’s list have completed a novel or a collection of short stories, and, for thirteen of those writers, that first book took at least three years to complete. Only three authors finished their first book in less than one year, while another three—Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Chris Adrian, and Salvatore Scibona—claim that it took them the better part of a decade. It’s not surprising, then, that the majority of the list’s members are over the age of thirty-five, while only two of the writers—Tea Obreht and Karen Russell—are younger than thirty. I am under the age of thirty. I also wrote my short story in a mere three and a half weeks. Extrapolate that out to the ten short stories one might write for a collection and I haven’t even struggled at the task of writing fiction for an entire year.

4) Doubt yourself constantly

Working on your first book for three to ten years would surely plant some seeds of doubt in your career choice. Doubt in one’s ability to be a writer—as gauged by the question, “Did you ever consider not becoming a writer?”—proved a hallmark of the list makers. More than three-quarters—sixteen of the twenty—considered quitting writing or not writing at all. Doctoring was the most frequently cited alternative career choice. Nell Freudenberger thought about going to med school; Rivka Galchen went to med school; and Chris Adrian, who has published three novels, is a doctor and currently in training to be a pediatric oncologist. Writing fiction, it seems, even when it’s for the New Yorker, does not inspire a sense of job security. Only C.E. Morgan answered the question about literary doubt with a simple “no”—but she also claimed to finish her first book in just two weeks, by far the speediest writer of the group. If only she’d worked for a little longer, perhaps she might doubt herself more.

I’m pretty sure that not having enough doubt in my own fiction-writing abilities caused my New Yorker rejection—it was the first story I ever wrote, and I wrote it in three weeks. How good could it actually have been? I should have toiled for longer, tapping away on my MacBook in overpriced Brooklyn coffee shops, with a dog-eared copy of Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeepers on hand for inspiration. 

Daniel Lametti writes for DISCOVER magazine. In May, he moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Related on maisonneuve.org:

—How to Make it as a Writer? Be a Man
—The Not-Quite Novel
—Adult Language

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