20 Under 40: A Comprehensive (Subjective) Guide

Gee, this should help you kill some time at work.

Two weeks ago I received a promotional email about a New Yorker event: a reading by Joshua Ferris and Karen Russell. I was excited. But I was also surprised to see that they were touted in the ad as “20 under 40 writers.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised, I guess. The series only just wrapped up at the very end of September. Still, it made me wonder—for how long will the magazine continue to refer back to their own list? I guess a long time. They already put out a book with all the stories collected together, because hey, let’s milk this thing for all it’s worth, right? It seems possible the contributor’s page in some issue a decade from now might still say, “Fiction by Tea Obreht, from our 20 Under 40 list!”

All of this got me thinking again about the series, which I followed closely. I wondered why no major outlets had run any big post-list critique. When the list first came out, the literary world spewed forth commentary after commentary. Which writers belonged? Which didn’t deserve the honor? What’s the larger significance of the list?

But a review of each story that these writers produced as part of the 20 Under 40 series, wouldn’t that be the fairest assessment of the list’s merit? We know better, of course, than to think each contribution was an original short story; many of these were in fact excerpts from forthcoming novels, rather than new pieces specifically requested by the magazine. It’s a trick The New Yorker has done for ages—running an excerpt without notifying the reader of what it is—and I resent it.

But what can you do. Now that the 20 stories have been published, all that’s left is to go case-by-case. So, let’s.

Spoiler alert, by the way. If you haven’t read the short stories, and want to, you should go access them online and then come back.


Joshua Ferris, “The Pilot,” June 14/21:

Joshua Ferris

This is one of the finest stories of the series, and it set a high bar for the other 19. Only a few ended up meeting that bar. Middling television writer Lawrence is a victim of compulsive self-doubting that makes him instantly likeable. The story moves well. For the bulk of it, Lawrence obsessively debates whether Kate Lotvelt—who created a successful show in which a character dies every episode (a token absurdist idea from Ferris)—actually had Lawrence in mind when she invited him to a big party she’ll be throwing. He fears it may have just been part of an impersonal, mass email. It was. At the party, when he approaches Kate with his own script for a TV pilot, which is about an alcoholic constantly tempted to drink and sounds quite similar to the show Rescue Me, Kate crushingly asks him, “Do I know you?”

All the discussion of TV writing is reminiscent of a scene from Sam Lipsyte’s novel The Ask, in which a character pitches a reality show about death row inmates who get their last meals cooked by world-famous chefs. Much like that premise, which is absurd but just plausible enough to actually seem like it could be a good idea for a show, Kate’s program and even the half-baked show Lawrence imagines are equally well constructed by Ferris. It is worth mentioning here, by the way, that Lipsyte’s outstanding story “The Dungeon Master,” which was the first to run after this series, was better than any of the 20.

When Lawrence begins talking to people at the party, each conversation more painful, we are both riveted and horrified. He keeps a toothpick in his mouth the whole night so that he’ll remind people of the charismatic coach from Friday Night Lights (though Ferris doesn’t actually name the show). Later, as he’s mingling and embarrassing himself, he meets one woman and “sort of stab[s] her cheek a little with the toothpick.” Little moments like this leave us laughing, but also pitying our hero.

Finally, his shaky self-confidence completely killed (though he is drunk and thinks he is having a good time), he apparently falls asleep, lights himself on fire, jumps into the pool and drowns, albeit there is room to argue that he does not die. Ferris writes the tale with a winking eye, giving us punchy dialogue that both demoralizes Lawrence and makes him quite real. The story’s dramatic conclusion, while violent, isn’t necessarily surprising. Instead, it feels like the only way Lawrence’s evening could have possibly ended.

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