I recently reread 20 Under 40: Stories from The New Yorker, published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. For those unfamiliar, 20 Under 40 collates stories originally published in The New Yorker magazine from 20 of their more exciting contributors, all under 40 years of age at the time of publication. The contributor list reads like a who’s who of American literature, featuring Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss and ZZ Packer, among others, and it’s the second time the magazine has published a ’20 Under 40’ list since 1999, a list that at the time included David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen and Jhumpa Lahiri.
While any ponderings on such a topic are contentious at best (the 2010 20 Under 40 selection came up against mild criticism at The Millions, not long after it was announced), they’re also illuminating, in so far as they indicate the types of writers (and by extension the types of writing) valued by a publication as esteemed as The New Yorker. It acts as a gateway to these writers, their work, and their backgrounds. And in my case, it has guided future purchases and library rentals: since first reading the collection, I’ve read novels and collections from included authors ZZ Packer, Dinaw Mengestu, Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie, Téa Obreht and Yiyun Li.
As a writer, I value guidance on similarly aged writers nearing the top of their profession. As a reader, I’m always keen to expand my horizons, and as a bibliophile, I’m a fan of anything that collects some of the best fiction available at any given time.
Which started me thinking about Australian literature, and who, if given the task, one might choose to fill the pages of an Australian ’20 Under 40’. Some choices would seem almost mandatory. Any reader worth their salt would have had a hard time missing Patrick Cullen, Jennifer Mills, Michael Sala, Ryan O’Neill or Josephine Rowe in recent editions of Black Inc.’s excellent Best Australian Stories series, and indeed, any number of independent literary journals. One could also take their pick from fiction writers Jon Bauer, Ruby Murray, Emmett Stinson, Craig Silvey, Penni Russon, Amy Espeseth, Romy Ash, Favel Parrett, Chris Currie, S.A. Jones, Annabel Smith and Jessica Au. And while I’m not in the habit of pre-empting successful literary careers, my money (and indeed Little, Brown’s) is on KYD’s own Hannah Kent becoming the next young Australian author to watch.
Anthologising such authors in a single collection would undoubtedly capture an impressive snapshot of some of Australia’s best up-and-coming authors. It would also, however, miss a whole bunch of them, too. The truth is, not all great writers appear in the most ‘important’ journals, or have novels already published.
So throw in Sam Van Zweden, Mark Welker, Bel Woods, Rebecca Giggs, Sam Rutter and Angela Meyer, too. Add Brooke Dunnell, Chloe Walker, Kelli Lonergan and Aaron Mannion; and let’s include Sam Cooney, Sam Twyford-Moore and Mark Chu as well. At this point, we’ve barely scraped the surface. And unless you’re an editor or someone intimately connected with independent publishing, you probably won’t have heard the majority of these names before.
You will hear more, though, if we look at greater facilitation of a writer as more than the books they can produce. You will look forward to their first full length work if you already know whom to look out for.
Any and all lists are subjective, including those stories selected by the aforementioned Best Australian Stories series. With that in mind, the only real redress is to create other lists, other publications – built to represent writers who may be producing quality work, but have yet to break through as established authors.
I would love to read any number of ‘best writer’ collections as opposed to those primarily focused on writing alone. I would like us to broaden our horizons when it comes to how we promote both our authors and the work they produce. I would like a book where writers are chosen not, as in Black Inc.’s case, by a single editor, but by groups of independent writers, publishers and editors. They’d surely know more about Australia’s up-and-coming authors than a single author acting in isolation, and could also showcase said potential without having to worry about who’s been reviewed or who has won awards.
After revisiting 20 Under 40, I saw the potential to expand Australia’s somewhat limited definition of those writers noteworthy of regard, respect or celebration. I saw a way to bring the future into the present; encompassing the perspectives, ideas, and stories from a whole new generation of writers.
In recent times, there’s been a push to acknowledge Australia’s literary past: those forgotten novelists who have, for one reason or another, slipped from the public awareness. It’s equally important to acknowledge our country’s literary future, in and outside of traditional literary definitions.
Laurie Steed is a writer, editor and Killings columnist. He is currently completing his PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia.