The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40,” Umberto Eco on the power of lists, and how to navigate a million books a year
Last summer, The New Yorker made the announcement that sent shock waves through the ranks of youngish American writers: It had decided who the 20 best of them under 40 were (though it carefully avoided the word “best”). The list did indeed include some of the most formidable writers of their generation: Wells Tower, Daniel Alarcon, Rivka Galchen, and many others, and their stories have now been collected in a new anthology, “20 Under 40: Stories from The New Yorker.”
Needless to say, in the cloistered hothouse of the writing world, the list caused a mix of panic (existential and aesthetic), celebration (fiction matters!) and sour grapes (a record harvest).
But amid backlash came a procession of alternative lists: 20 more under 40, 10 over 80, 41 over 40, and so on, while others cataloged the most overrated writers, the most underrated writers, etc. The New York Times summed up the reaction with the headline: “20 Younger Writers Earn the Envy of Many Others.” Gawker.com posted a primer on how to complain about the list, “without looking jealous and bitter.”
Why all the fuss?