Salon's 20 most marketable writers under 40

Scanning the horizon for the hottest talents of the 21st century, we got a little dizzy and had to sit down.

Published June 25, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Salon's special summer fiction issue began with what seemed like a simple question: "Where, for the love of Moses, is my coffee?" and later, "Who are the 20 most marketable young writers in America today?" A tedious paper jam in the fax machine followed. Publicists.

Why, then, did it become so complicated? First, there was that word "writer." How was that to be defined? In an issue given over to marketable young writers, does "writer" mean "person who authors books" or "person willing to bare left breast while flipping bird on jacket cover?" We settled on a definition that includes both senses, though perhaps more of the latter than the former (when applicable), as well as a few others, minus a couple, plus one.

Then, there was the question of "young." In any of the other arts, youth is defined easily enough: it's people in their 20s. (People in their teens aren't "people" in the strictest sense, unless they are "Teen People," in which case they are eminently marketable and should be treated accordingly.) It also includes people who are not middle-aged, old or dead. But fiction writing is different: It's revealing that it takes years, decades, even, before some writers really begin using language as something to make stories with. Tales of writers squandering their youth in futile attempts to use language as something to make clock radios with, or to make storage facilities with, abound in today's literary landscape. As a result, many young writers are well into their 30s, often their 40s, even their late 40s, though never a day later, before they actually get around to producing a book. This poses not an insignificant problem for marketing departments, which require the author to possess some degree of appeal to the camera.

How then were we to settle on our cutoff age? What criteria would have to be met? Actual "youth"? Rampant public displays of emotional immaturity? A tendency to shop in the juniors and misses department despite the imminent onset of menopause? And who were we to say, anyway? All we knew for sure was that no one under the age of 35 likes to be called ma'am, especially not by cute supermarket bag-boys.

Next we went about picking our top 20 "young writers." Why 20? Why not a dozen? A baker's dozen? A bushel? A peck? Why not an undisclosed number? We wanted to come up with an "edgy" number. A number with a hook. Preferably a number in the six figures, not including movie rights. This, too, turned out to be complicated, but we lived.

So, after all this, what do we now find? Pretty much the usual. While you won't find a unifying voice, or much to write home about, there is a certain type of story being told -- the story of becoming the object of envy of all of the well-dressed but otherwise unremarkable people who knew you at school.

Displayed in these pages you'll see the range of what's available to the novelist, realistically, at the end of the 20th century if he hopes to secure a contract for his next book: neurotic trivialism (Phyllida Smith-Barney's "Hedy Pink's Day Planner and Laundry List"); post-postnarcissism (Catherine Lebowitz's "Look at Me, I'm Bad" and Cecilia Dunn's "Damaged but Pretty"); and the use of history as soporific (James Cassidy's "Slow Moving Continent.")

A related interest informs the work of others: In "Sucker," J. Dallas Funston brings to bear on the table of contents the full force of his verbal pyrotechnics as well as a staggering long-windedness that culminates in a baffling and seemingly unrelated (I'm told) conclusion. Former cabana boy and log-jammer Jonathan Eastcoaster's jacket photo, in which he's seen driving a tractor along the banks of the East River, is all you need to know about him. That hair! Also found in our pages are the literary stylings of several comely exotic foreigners given to lush and lyrical prose, and the work of a lesbian gal.

As for our decision to include Janie Ford's "I Fucked My Dad on Purpose"; Manolo Hicks' "Lunchtime in Satan's Backyard"; and Tuffer Ellsworth's "My Parents Drank Highballs," well, the numbers speak for themselves -- and all three are currently rumored to be strewn about Julia Roberts' living room with studied nonchalance.

What are we to make of this snapshot of a generation on the eve of the next century? That depends, of course, on whether the flash was on, or whether the picture was taken indoors in a well-lighted room. Otherwise, it would be too dark to tell. Consider what such a list would have looked like a hundred years ago, in a magazine dated June 28, 1899. It's unlikely, for instance, that any of these writers would have appeared on such a list, as they would not have yet been born. Also, it is unlikely that the magazine would have featured mail-order ads for Classic French Sailor Shirts. At that time, English literature was still intimidating to most Americans, especially speed-readers, who often had difficulty making out the accents. As Frank Norris wrote at the turn of the century, novels were "molders of Public opinion and Public morals." Nowadays, despite radical improvements in capitalization, novels often simply mold -- many of today's readers of fiction preferring to curl up with a good TV.

Of course, we now know that the year 1899 produced a better class of baby than of book. Hemingway, Borges, Nabokov -- all were born that year. Faulkner was just out of diapers, though he still made the occasional mess in his shorts. In the century that followed, the novel would no longer be seen as an important molder of anything, though it would occasionally be used to press autumn leaves. All art forms would be slapped around by our century, but it's possible the novel would sustain the most massive head trauma. It would be politicized, existentialized, modernized, postmodernized, post-postmodernized, macramied, "antiqued," marinated, pan-seared and served with a porcini sesame sauce on a bed of arugula. It would abandon narrative (claiming it was going out for cigarettes), pick barroom fights with form, imitate thought, seduce content, abandon content -- though this time, not without court-ordered financial repercussions -- and go broke. Interestingly, the career of Norman Mailer would follow a similar trajectory.

By Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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