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The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40

Medieval man at writing desk; from Rodwell, G. F.: “South by East: Notes of Travel in Southern Europe” (1877). Public domain in the U.S.A.

Continuing on a theme of work this week, but closer to home, I’m thinking about layers of privilege. We think of class distinctions as being between people who work in factory, construction, and other menial jobs versus those who are in professions and managerial roles. But there are many class distinctions within the professions as well.

Recently, for a project I’m working on, I’ve been reading author biographies, and I revisited The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” issue published in June of 2010. The New Yorker publishes a summer fiction issue every year, and last year they chose to feature their top writers under the age of 40.

On the surface, the list is a paragon of progressive balance. Gone are the all-male, all-white lists of a few decades ago. A full half of the list is comprised of women, and there are 6 non-whites on the list. A variety of white ethnicities and persuasions are included, including at least 3 Jews. Several are immigrants or barely second-generation Americans. At first, the list looks like an ideal of the Melting Pot. Yet, poke a little bit and privilege raises its head again.

Of their 44 college/university degree admissions (a few of their degrees went unfinished), only 5 of them came from public universities other than the University of Iowa. These 5 degrees were: a pre-med degree at Peking University in China for someone who went on to get two master’s degrees from Iowa (an MS in immunology and an MFA); a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Connecticut for someone who went on to two graduate degrees at Johns Hopkins and Yale; a bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida for someone who went on to go to medical school at Eastern Virginia, study at Harvard Divinity, and finally receive an MFA at Iowa; and two MFAs, one from University of California Irvine and one from Hunter College of the City University of New York. There were 6 MFAs from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

Of the 20 young writers, at least 4 have either studied medicine or at some point been on a science track in preparation for studying medicine. Two of them have MD degrees. (Three of them have fathers who are doctors.)

I think the best advice I could give to those wanting to be creative writers is: attend Ivy League institutions, get an MFA from the University of Iowa, or become a physician. Unfortunately, you can’t choose your father’s profession.

Not that all of those who get degrees from Ivy League universities or Iowa or who study medicine go on such meteoric rises to fame as writers. And not that no one with a more modest educational pedigree ever succeeds. But statistically those things seem to improve someone’s odds significantly. I am happy to say that UCF (where I teach) has just sent its first undergrad on to the MFA program at Columbia.

However, perhaps, as I suspect, the key statistical factor for success is being born into privilege and/or to families that are highly educated and well-connected.

Of course, there are a couple of sort-of exceptions on the list—Philipp Meyer claims to have been raised in a “working-class neighborhood” by a father who was an “electrician turned college biology instructor” and a mother who was an “artist.” Wells Tower’s parents were both teachers, and ZZ Packer has noted that her father owned a bar and her mother worked in a clerical or administrative job for the Social Security Administration, and that her opportunities came in a school program that recruited minority students into top universities.

A few others seem to be fairly elusive about their backgrounds—there were 4 of the 20 for whom I couldn’t find any specific or only vague accounts of their parents’ professions in an internet scan, though their elite schooling is front and center in bios. It’s hard to know whether that information gap comes from a mere focus on professionalism, as I’m sure many would assert, or if there’s also something else at work—a working-class shame or a desire not to acknowledge a background of privilege, especially when a writer’s work focuses on poverty like that of C. E. Morgan and Dinaw Mengestu. The latter, for instance, notes that his father worked for Caterpillar immediately after immigrating from Ethiopia, but not what he did there or what later jobs he had when, as Mengestu notes, his family moved to Chicago to pursue “middle-class comfort” and where he attended an elite Roman Catholic high school. Salvatore Scibona says that his parents didn’t have the money to pay for his college, but not what they did for a living. For those who will not be specific about their lives or who are cryptic, it’s impossible to know.

As a sideline, it’s also indicative of something that even when these young writers mention their fathers’ careers, they often don’t mention any career for their mothers. So, I found careers for 16 to 17 fathers/grandfathers, but only 10 for mothers. There may still be a large housewife factor for the mothers of prominent writers.

There’s a strong cultural belief that our country is a meritocracy, and I’m sure that a lot of people would explain all of this by noting that these young writers simply have more talent and drive than other young writers. Not only is admission to The New Yorker a practice that must select from the best, so is admission to these elite universities. I certainly do agree that they are a highly talented group, and I’m a fan of some of their writing. I’ll never forget reading Nicole Krauss’s “From the Desk of Daniel Varsky” in Harper’s in 2007—I thought it was the best thing by far and away that I had read in any of the big magazines in years, maybe ever.

But I also laughed out loud when reading an article about her in New York magazine (“Bio Hazards”) that talks about the trials of her being married to another hot young writer, Jonathan Safran Foer, receiving a six-figure advance on her second and third novels, living in a multi-million-dollar brownstone, and the privilege of her early life. “But what of it?” the article’s author, Boris Kachka, writes. “Authors through the ages have been well-off and well connected.” He goes on to note that Krauss thinks that “the writer’s biography” is “irrelevant at best.”

People, this is like white people saying that color doesn’t matter. Privilege is only irrelevant if you have it.

I won’t even get into how good-looking all these young writers are, especially the women.

But I will note that I am planning to expand my reading in regard to these issues. Perhaps I will even read B. R. Myers’s A Reader’s Manifesto, perhaps even The Communist Manifesto to which its title refers. Myers’s goal is to promote genre fiction over elite literary work, and there is nothing I despise more than the lurid fantasy novels that my students seem to love so much or the turgid prose and sexist characters in so much science fiction. I have no idea how to reconcile all these conflicts—I love literary fiction and nonfiction and poetry, I teach it to my students, and it’s where my heart is, but I’m starting to think that in the lower end of the creative writing world—itself a very privileged place by some standards, and where I live—maybe it makes sense to also advise my students to turn to genre writing, barring premier grad school options or medical school. It’s the place where our students, especially our MFA students, might actually have a chance. At UCF, we have even a couple of faculty members who write genre fiction. The idea of this shift makes my skin crawl, but I may be a snob in beggar’s clothing.

The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Father: statistics prof at University of Nigeria
Mother: University registrar
bachelor’s communications/political science, Eastern Connecticut State U
MFA Johns Hopkins
MA (African studies) Yale

Cris Adrian
Father: airline pilot
Mother: ?
bachelor’s English University of FL
MD Eastern VA Medical School
studied Harvard Divinity School
MFA Iowa

Daniel Alarcon
[immigrated from Peru age 3]
Father: physician
Mother: physician
bachelor’s anthropology Columbia
MFA Iowa

David Bezmozgis
[immigrated from Latvia to Canada age 6]
Father: ?
Mother: ?
bachelor’s English McGill
MFA University Southern California

Joshua Ferris
Father: stockbroker for Prudential, investment company owner
Mother: ?
bachelor’s English & Philosophy Iowa
MFA UC Irvine

Jonathan Safran Foer
Father: lawyer
Mother: president of public relations company
bachelor’s philosophy Princeton University
[no MFA but did undergrad thesis with Joyce Carol Oates]

Nell Freudenberger
[her wedding announcement lists John Lithgow as her godfather]
Father: TV screenplay writer
Mother: ? [career not listed in wedding announcement, though groom’s mother’s is]
bachelor’s Harvard University
MFA New York University

Rivka Galchen
Father: professor of meteorology
Mother: computer programmer at National Severe Storms Laboratory
bachelor’s English Princeton University
MD Mount Sinai School of Medicine
MFA Columbia University

Nicole Krauss
Grandfather: Ran Tel Aviv branch of Bulova
“the isolated splendor of her Bauhaus childhood home”, garden designed by “an Olmsted”
Father: orthopedic surgeon
Mother: ?
bachelor’s English/creative writing Stanford University
MA art history Oxford University/Courtauld Institute

Yiyun Li
[“grew up in a two-room apartment in Beijing with her mother, father, grandfather, and sister”; parents don’t speak English; immigrated to U.S. age 24]
Father: physicist
Mother: teacher
bachelor’s science Peking University
MS immunology Iowa
MFA Iowa

Dinaw Mengestu
[born in Ethiopia; immigrated to Peoria (later Forest Park, IL) at age 2]
Father: worked for Ethiopian Airlines, then worked at Caterpillar factory headquarters (“hope of rising to middle-class comfort”)
Mother: ?
attended “elite Roman Catholic high school”
bachelor’s English Georgetown University
MFA Columbia University

Philipp Meyer
[grew up in “working class” neighborhood]
Father: electrician/college biology instructor
Mother: artist
bachelor’s English Cornell University
no MFA, but fellowship at Michener Center for Writers in Austin

C.E. Morgan
[writes about working class people, but is secretive about her past]
Father: ?
Mother: ?
bachelor’s voice Berea College [“a tuition-free labor college for students from poor and working-class backgrounds in Appalachia”]
master’s Harvard Divinity School

Tea Obreht
[born in Yugoslavia, moved to Cyprus & Cairo following grandfather’s job at age 7, then to U.S. at age 12 or 13]
Grandfather: aviation engineer
Father: not mentioned
Mother: ?
bachelor’s University of Southern California
MFA Cornell University

ZZ Packer
Father: bar & lounge owner
Mother: worked for Social Security Administration
BA Yale University
MA Johns Hopkins University
MFA Iowa
Stegner Fellowship Standford University

Karen Russell
[notes that she finished her MFA with a lot of student debt]
Father: Vietnam veteran
Mother: real estate attorney
bachelor’s Northwestern University
MFA Columbia University

Salvatore Scibona
[claims to have been working class, parents wouldn’t have money to send him to college]
Father: ?
Mother: ?
bachelor’s St. John’s College, New Mexico
MFA Iowa

Gary Shteyngart
born in Leningrad
Father: engineer in a LOMO camera factory
Mother: pianist
bachelor’s Oberlin College
MFA Hunter College of CUNY

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum
Father: academic physician
Mother: ?
bachelor’s Brown University
MFA Iowa

Wells Tower
Father: teacher
Mother: teacher
BA anthropology & sociology Wesleyan University
MFA Columbia University

3 responses »

  1. That entire list frustrated me to no end, so I’m glad I’m not the only one who saw the cracks. Also, I don’t read much sci-fi, but I read Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles” on vacation last month; the prose was generally spare. I don’t remember it being too terribly sexist, but that’s likely a function of there not being too many women in the thing at all.

  2. 1. It seems your discussion of privilege behind the literary elite has overlooked that the source of discussion is The New Yorker, that paragon of the New York literary establishment that barely seems to have much to do with mortals. NYC dominates that list, in one way or another. Literature outside of NYC (or Iowa’s program) seems like a long-shot, culturally speaking.

    2. Quite egoistically, I lament that I can now technically never appear in an “under 40” list of anything. ☹

    3. The arbiters of the literary marketplace are generally “a breed apart and make no sense”, as Chingachgook said to Natty Bumpo in the film of The Last of the Mohicans, in a (slightly) different context, I think.

    4. You say there’s a strong cultural belief that our country is a meritocracy, but you don’t quite say whether or not you agree. With eight years of George W. Bush mucking up recent history, with a national half-poised to double-down on executive stupidity next year to solve our problems, I am not convinced that a majority of Americans do believe we live in a meritocracy, and I am certainly not so sanguine that one exists here. (I do think that a certain rhetorical savoir-faire mixed in with merit can be of help. The devil always helps those in need, you know, if you meet his reasonable price.)

    5. Nicole Krauss’s dismissing biography as essential to the relevance of artistic work is not necessarily precisely the same thing as saying that economic privilege isn’t of immense value to actually getting said work done. And people prying into her biography are usually energetically rooting around for tabloid gossip about her being a part of a literary power couple, like the Star reporting on every triviality of the Brangelina household. (Jonathan Saffron Foer was once incredibly decent to me, so perhaps I am protective—although that opportunity probably points out something about my own privileged status.) Nicole Krauss does seem complacent about how fortunate her circumstances were growing up, and it is in bad form to talk about growing up wealthy and privileged, but it proved a necessary tax for her to promote her book. Her own perhaps Satanic bargain?

    6. In the field of literary fiction, there is an increased valuation of genre, as seen in recent genre-bending novels by Rick Moody (The Four Fingers of Death), Jonathan Lethem (Chronic City), and Junot Diaz, whose The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao tells a story of political and emotional depth while passionately using a subtext of fantasy and sci-fi literature, as well as comic books. That novel won the Pulitzer in 2008. I personally believe that the best measure of a writer’s project’s worth is whether or not it would be a project the writer he or she would eagerly want to read. Writing genre when one’s heart isn’t into it is about as bad as writing literature when one’s heart isn’t into it.

    • All good points, John.

      I do not believe we live in a meritocracy, though I do sometimes see evidence that merit has to do with some things. I respect that many, many immigrants to this country still consider it the land of opportunity, and our system no doubt beats a strict caste system or one of aristocracy for rewarding merit. I like your comment about the devil’s reasonable price.

      I don’t mean to be too hard on Nicole Krauss–I really do admire both her work and that of Jonathan Safran Foer, and I understand her need for some privacy. I do get tired, however, of well-off people believing so blindly that they only get and have what they deserve. I will never forget listening one Christmas day many years ago to my brother’s mother-in-law go on about how basically the poor deserve to be poor and how she and her family deserve to be rich. It made me sick at heart, and it is definitely part of the insanity of the current political atmosphere.

      And many of our MFA students do long to write genre fiction. We tend to resist that, though I did have one student this summer who did a great genre-like experiment that I thought worked in a literary way. I’m still stuck in the idea, however, that genre has to “transcend” the conventions of the forms to be worthy of an MFA course or of literary attention. The genre-bending that has been going on recently is interesting, but there’s still a huge difference between Moody, Lethem, and Diaz and people like Orson Scott Card and Stephanie Meyer. That’s who I mean when I say “genre.” I guess it gets tricky when a writer falls somewhere in between.

      Well, I could go on… but will stop for now.

      Thanks, as always, for engaging in intelligent conversation.


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