You may still not know who Tèa Obreht is, but by now you may have heard of the list that will supposedly make her a household name: The New Yorker's 20 writers under 40 list, which was featured in the recent fiction double issue. The New Yorker claims that "these twenty men and women dazzlingly represent the multiple strands of inventiveness and vitality that characterize the best fiction being written in this country today."
The list has been widely discussed: The New York Times argues that "the emphasis on futurity misses an essential truth about fiction writers: They often compose their best and most lasting work when they are young." Gawker has some helpful advice about how to talk about the list without sounding bitter: "DON'T spend more than 200 words or five minutes talking about it. DO use the phrase "for what it is" as much as possible.Sample: For what it is, this is great! For what it is."
Some of the authors were a leap of faith on the part of the list-makers. Their groundbreaking book, which they are now expected to write, is yet to be published or not yet conceived. Novelist Ben Okri told The Guardian, "We will see in 10 years' time [how these authors have fared]. What matters is not the list but that mystical quality called genius – and a bit of luck."
Some of the authors, however, have already made their breakthrough and will likely be remembered as authors who were important to this generation (if not necessarily beyond).
Chimanda Ngozi Adichie is the author of Half of a Yellow Sun, a book about two wealthy Nigerian women set during the Nigerian-Biafran war. Adichie wrote the book to fill a void in popular understanding of the war, which, she says, has been almost forgotten outside of West Africa and is missing from Nigerian textbooks today. The title story of Adichie's The Thing Around Your Neck was featured on SELECTED SHORTS in 2009.
Chris Adrian, author of A Better Angel may have the most interesting combination of degrees of anyone the list. He’s an oncologist, author, and graduate of the Yale divinity school. Adrian has finished two novels, a number of short story collections, and is currently at work on two books: a novel that re-tells "A Mid-summer's Night Dream" and a young adult novel.
Joshua Ferris most recently wrote The Unnamed which tells the story of Tim Farnsworth, a man who has a condition he can't diagnose. Ferris says his character needs to diagnose his condition not to cure it, but to understand it, name it, and feel comfort in knowing that other people share it with him. He has finished two novels and is currently working on a third. You can read his story "The Pilot" here. Ferris was also featured on Talk to Me in Februrary 2010, as part of our review of the Happy Ending reading series.
Jonathan Safran-Foer, author of Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close tried his hand at non-fiction in the book Eating Animals which investigates factory farming. Safran-Foer has finished two novels and one work of non-fiction, and is currently at work on a third novel. You can read his story "Here We Aren't, So Quickly" here. Safran-Foer's whimsical story "The Sixth Borough" was featured on SELECTED SHORTS in 2007.
Nell Freudenberger wrote her first novel The Dissident, the story of a Chinese performance artist and political dissident who takes up residency at an all-girl's private school. Freudenberger says contemporary Chinese artists inspired some of the characters in The Dissident, as well as her first book, a collection of short stories called Lucky Girls. Freudenberger has finished two books and is currently at work on a third, called "Newlyweds".
Nicole Krauss talked about her novel The History of Love and the three different voices that narrate her novel and "what it means to be seen". Leo Gursky, one of her narrators, an old man who survives World War II in Europe by hiding and being invisible worries that when he dies he won't have left anything behind to remember him by. Krauss has published three books.
Gary Shteyngart spoke at BAM's 2007 Eat, Drink, & Be Literary series. He reads from his novel Absurdistan in which a very fat man destroys a country which Shteyngart describes as "small, oil-rich, formerly Soviet republic currently administered by Haliburton". Absurdistan is Shteyngart's second novel. He has finished three novels so far and is currently at work at a collection of essays.
Wells Tower was featured at the awards ceremony for the 2010 Story Prize in which Tower was a finalist. Tower reads from his story "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned", a hilarious tale vikings who go, in Tower's own words, "a-murderin'.". "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned" was featured in Tower's first book, a collection of short stories of the same title. Tower is currently working on his first novel.