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
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
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
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
“In my dreams, my birth mother is the queen of queens, and she has made a fabulous life for herself, as ruler of the world, except for one missing link—me,” writes novelist A.M. Homes in her memoir The Mistress’s Daughter, the story of meeting her birth parents after 30 years. Homes’s imagination is much kinder than reality. In truth, her birth mother got pregnant at 22 after an affair with a much older man; she never married or had another child. In her memoir, novelist Homes tries to rebuild the foundation of her identity after a harsh look at the misbegotten blueprints. April 11, Barnes and Noble, 675 Sixth Ave, 212-727-1227
PEN World Voices Festival
War, poverty, racism—this festival has it all. Writers from around the world will descend upon New York City to address issues affecting international authors today. Readings and panels have not yet been finalized but participants will include Salman Rushdie, Philip Gourevitch, Lawrence Weschler, Carolin Emcke, and Neil Gaiman. April 24-29, various venues around the city, pen.org/festival
John McPhee and Martha McPhee
It is a rare occasion when a father and daughter gather together to showcase their new novels. New Yorker favorite John will be reading from Uncommon Carriers, a book of observations about trucking that he made while tagging along in the passenger seats of 16-wheelers, while Martha debuts L’America, her new novel about transatlantic love. April 25, 192 Books, 192 Tenth Ave, 212-255-4022, call for reservations
What if the homeland created for the Jews after World War II had been located in Alaska instead of Israel, as Franklin Roosevelt once proposed? The streets of Sitka might have turned into the gritty, urban menace envisioned by Michael Chabon in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. After Detective Meyer Landsman discovers the corpse of a strung-out chess prodigy in a flophouse, he delves into the seedy underbelly of “Alyeska” to solve this noir mystery with shtetl flair. Chabon also will be reading on May 2 at Barnes and Noble, 33 East 17
th Street, 212-253-0810. May 1, 92 super nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Ave, 212-415-5500
She’s a performance artist, musician, actress, screenwriter, and director; she even won the Camera d’Or at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival for Me and You and Everyone We Know. Now, with her first collection of short stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You, Miranda July sets out to prove herself outrageously talented in yet another medium. May 23, 192 Books, 192 Tenth Ave, 212-255-4022
Heyday begins in the Bowery of 1848, a time when the Manhattan vice district was so debauched that it makes the crack dens of the 1980s seem quaint. Lured by reports of gold, four friends band together to travel across the country to California. Unbeknownst to them, a ruthless murderer dogs at their heels. Written by journalist (and Spy co-founder) Kurt Andersen, Heyday is filled with celebrities from history’s A-list—Walt Whitman, Charles Darwin, and Alexis de Tocqueville among them. May 30, BAMcafé, 30 Lafayette Ave, Bklyn, 718-636-4100