The New Yorker weighed in last week with its list of the best young writers of the decade. Or maybe they meant the century, or perhaps even the millennium. Whatever. The implication is these 20 fiction writers are hip and now and we'll all be hearing lots more from them in the 21st century.
I wasn't on the list -- no surprise there since I haven't published a story in the New Yorker, or anywhere else for that matter, and in fact technically don't even write fiction, but only think about writing it. Still, I felt a kind of sick little bump when I scanned the table of contents and realized literary fame wasn't going to happen for me in this century.
Contributing to my momentary queasiness: Someone I know in the very vaguest sense is on the list, accompanied by a blurred-edged, overexposed picture of her in a pink silky shirt laughing it up with the rugged, arty male writers on either side of her. A year ago the same magazine ran her first story under the byline "Jhumpa Lahiri, a new author," and now she's essential enough to be included in its end-of-century fiction roundup.
Lahiri may be new to readers of the New Yorker, but she's ancient history to me. We both attended a fiction workshop six years ago at Harvard University summer school. She needed the class to get enough credits to finish up an MFA at Boston University, and she presented story after polished story with a kind of exact, amiable indifference that let us all know just how important this make-up workshop was to her (not very). I was seven months pregnant with my first child and writing with the wavering intensity of the hormonally challenged. I was not the class star.
Flash-forward five years: I was 10 weeks postpartum with baby No. 2, exercising a little, easing back into work, getting enough sleep to at least survive, and even, tentatively, resuming a conjugal life with my husband. The baby was fat and extraordinarily happy, and his older brother seemed genuinely glad to have him around. We were all doing better than I had expected.
Then the new issue of the New Yorker arrived. With an infant in the house, there wasn't time to read anything more profound or less urgent than the grocery list, but I could still flip through the cartoons and glance at the table of contents. And there she was, Jhumpa Lahiri, new author. While I was off procreating, she'd apparently managed to climb her way up the literary ladder from a wannabe fiction workshop to the top of the slush pile.
I skipped the story itself (this wasn't about the actual art, after all) and flipped straight to the contributors' page (thank you, Tina Brown, for adding one), where it said Jhumpa was a fellow in a Provincetown artists' colony and coming out with her first book next year. Standing there in my kitchen with an infant idly gnawing my shoulder, I felt both heavy and hollow. Could it be I was jealous?
In the years since that workshop, I have published thousands and thousands of words under my byline, far more than could ever be in Lahiri's debut collection of short stories. My words aren't about secrets in the dark, sex on the beach or the mysteries of far-off continents, but rather about T1 lines, digital certificates and electronic document distribution. To report these high-technology profile pieces, I am paid a bit better than the prevailing wage for freelancers, I can -- and do -- work successfully out of my house and I get my ticket punched, just barely, as a working member of the ubiquitous digital society.
But when you write technology features for a living rather than short, hip fiction, nobody sends mash notes saying you've changed his life, nobody invites you to cocktail parties that are later chronicled in the New York papers and nobody offers you a fellowship. Not that I could pack off to Provincetown even if it were offered: For better or worse, my place right now is at home as a full-time mother and very part-time writer.
As for the new author, my emotions are equally split between honest admiration for what I remember as her precise, self-assured style and unalloyed envy over her splashy debut in the magazine that remains the Holy Grail to English-language fiction writers.
"It's like winning a Tony for your very first Equity role," I tried to explain to a friend and fellow stay-at-home parent who had danced off-Broadway.
She was unimpressed. "But you have your children," she said, as if that cleared up everything.
I do indeed have my children, and I do routinely use them as my excuse for not writing fiction. But there is nothing to prevent Lahiri from someday having children as well. More to the point, I spent my entire 20s unencumbered by children, a permanent relationship or even, at times, a steady employment and still I managed to complete not a single story that I consider worthy of publication.
Maybe it's time to come clean. I have been starting, but never quite finishing, short stories since I was 17 years old. I have a whole filing cabinet of works in progress that I have dutifully (or is that pretentiously?) moved from place to place and stage to stage in my life. As painful as it is to contemplate, perhaps I am not and will never be a writer of fiction.
But all may not be lost. Some good bits have piled up in that cabinet over the years, funny and poignant and just absurd enough to be appealing. They just need someone with more perseverance, or maybe more talent, to finish them.
The story of Lahiri's I remember most clearly from our workshop days was perfectly crafted and undeniably exotic, nearly impossible for anyone else to have written. Her New Yorker stories are a bit less intimidating -- they're good, in places very good, but the emotional ground they cover is hardly off-limits, even to a middle-aged, middle-class,
middlebrow Yankee with a strong background in suburbia.
What with the buzz of the new millennium and the energizing prospect of a completely toilet-trained household, I may still have time to make a mark. Splashy debuts notwithstanding, writing isn't particularly a vocation only of the young, and I don't, after all, have my heart set on winning a gymnastics medal or making the cover of Tiger Beat magazine. And I have managed to learn a few things in the years since I shared workshop space with Lahiri: How to go on day after day with very little sleep; how to work through the despair of dense material; how to write well in short, frantic bursts late at night or early in the morning; how to push deadlines to infinity and beyond with aplomb; and how happy you can be finishing something, even if that something isn't the most compelling or important piece ever written.
Perhaps the worst is behind me. My fiction filing cabinet, for example, has already survived its most ignoble trip yet, displaced, by the baby, from a spare room to my newest home "office" -- a dim corner of the master bedroom mere inches from the bed itself. That cabinet may yet disgorge a story or two, sometime in the distant, toddler-free future. If and when that day ever comes, one thing is already obvious -- any honest editor, however enthusiastic, will have a hard time by then calling me a "new" writer.