America's Next Top Supernovel

Granta once again takes bets on the nation's young literary talent

Eleven years ago, the British magazine Granta fired a shot heard round the world, or at least the literary world, by publishing a list of the 20 best American novelists under 40. Some of the small names on the list grew very big, like Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides. Other hot names at the time, like David Foster Wallace, were left off the list entirely. But as critics fussed about who was included and who was excluded, a clear snapshot of American writing emerged from the scuffle: It was clean, safe, and obsessed with realism. "The ghost of Raymond Carver haunted many American writers then," says Granta editor Ian Jack. "Not a bad ghost—far from it—but you can have too much of a good thing." The magazine's next issue, Granta 97: Best of Young American Novelists 2, due out this spring, is once more devoted to the top young authors in America, and it seems times have changed.

Back in the prosperous year of 1996, America's bubble had yet to burst. A war in Iraq had come and gone from our national attention as quickly as a video game. Only about 20 percent of adults used the Internet, and two Stanford Ph.D. students had just begun a research project called "Google." We weren't living in a global village yet, and it showed in our literature. "Writing was much more 'American' then—it was devoted to depicting the U.S.A.," says Jack. Most of the 1996 Granta winners concerned their novels with their hometowns, describing them in clear and sparse prose. For example, Sherman Alexie's short-story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven featured inhabitants of the Spokane Indian Reservation where he was raised; Washington State native David Guterson set Snow Falling on Cedars near Puget Sound; and Eugenides grew up in Grosse Point, Michigan, the affluent suburban-Detroit backdrop for The Virgin Suicides.

Now, novelists in the U.S., like many filmmakers nominated for Academy Awards this year, seem to find their inspiration overseas. "Today so many young American writers were born and raised abroad—China, Africa, Asia, Latin America—and they have different concerns and experiences," says Jack. But even Americans born here are worried about issues that extend well beyond the borders of the United States: war, terrorism, global warming, outsourcing, and immigration. "America seems part of a wider world now in a way it didn't then, and also much less certain of itself," says Jack. "That comes through in the writing."

Among the 21 new winners, there are certainly many authors with a global perspective, including hot properties Jonathan Safran Foer, Nell Freudenberger, and Gary Shteyngart; critical darlings Olga Grushin, Daniel Alarcon, and Uzodinma Iweala; and lesser known lights Rattawut Lapcharoensap and Jess Row.

' Original works from Granta 97 will be read on April 24 at the New School, Tishman Auditorium, 66 West 12th Street, 212-229-5667.

Listings by Jennifer Drapkin Ellis Avery + Sheri Joseph

One night, two debut novels, two stories of impossible love. A childish crush turns into burning infatuation in Ellis Avery's The Teahouse Fire, as an orphan obsesses over her adopted older sister in a Kyoto teahouse. In Sheri Joseph's Stray, an Atlanta musician lives quietly with his saintly Mennonite wife, but he longs for Paul, the handsome young actor who loved and abandoned him. March 14, Happy Ending, 302 Broome, 212-334-9676

Emily Barton

Brookland's Prue Winship has a singular vision she would risk anything to realize: building a bridge to Manhattan. She helps to run her family's gin distillery in a tiny cluster of communities known as Brookland. When her father dies, Prue inherits the family business and the potential to make her dream come true—but as a visionary woman living in post-colonial America, she will have more than technological hurdles to overcome. March 22, Pete's Candy Store, 709 Lorimer St, Bklyn, 718-302-3770

Jonathan Lethem

In You Don't Love Me Yet, Jonathan Lethem's latest pop-culture-saturated novel, Lucinda answers the phone for a complaint line by day. By night, she's a doe-eyed bassist for an alt-rock band. Most of the time, her phone job is tedious, but one caller speaks directly to her libido, and they begin a torrid affair. Lucinda's lover is a professional phrase-writer named Carl, who has coined such sayings as "All thinking is wishful." She rips off his words to write lyrics for her band, and in exchange, Carl wants a place onstage. This MacArthur award–winning writer will also be reading on April 25 at the 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue, 212-415-5652, along with Nathan Englander, whose long-awaited novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, will be published this spring. March 23, Barnes and Noble, 33 E 17th, 212-253-0810

Ishmael Beah

At the age of 12, Ishmael Beah watched rebel forces destroy his hometown in Sierra Leone. Separated from his parents, Beah roamed the war-torn countryside, starving, scared, and alone. At 13, he was taken in by the government army, handed an AK-47, fed amphetamines, and coerced into committing atrocious acts of violence. Now, at 25, he tells his story in A Long Way Home: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. March 27, Barnes and Noble, 4 Astor Pl, 212-420-1322

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