Top 20 Under 40

The New Yorker has released the anticipated list of top 20 fiction writers under 40, kicking off their summer fiction issue. It’s been eleven years now since the last list.

I’ve no trouble with the number 20, but I admit the number 40 does pose a problem.  If these figures represent the ‘defining voices’ of contemporary fiction, the stars to watch, is there still a future for those who by chance happen to be on the other side of that magic number?

Why should age be a demarkation when it comes to creative writing?  And, why 40? Why not 32 or 46?  It sounds arbitrary doesn’t it.  I know, we’re a lists-obsessed people.  Even the New Yorker editors admit that.  It’s funny that they seem to justify their act by citing The Ten Commandments, the twelve disciples, the seven deadly sins, the Fantastic Four.  Wow, do we ever need to elevate literary stardom to epic proportion… we have fierce competitions in 3-D movies, ‘Dancing with the Stars” and interactive video games, just to name a few.

Writers on their previous list include Jonathan Franzen, Jhumpa Lahiri, Michael Chabon and David Foster Wallace.  So, it’s a highly anticipated star roster.   As well, other magazines have published similar recognition.  Granta has its “Top 21 Under 35” twice a few years ago.  Sounds like a well-established marketing strategy.

Fine.  That is certainly understandable in a time when so many alternatives are competing with reading a short story or a novel. But still, the number 40 troubles me.  My sympathy goes to those who are no less promising but alas, have shot further than the 40 mark.  Without being recognized as ‘young’ anymore, will they still have a future?  Further, is there hope for those who might choose to pursue a passion that comes late in life?  I can see the futility if that dream is to be a concert pianist if one hadn’t taken up the instrument by the ripe old age of 12.  But, what about writing?  Is starting at 40, or 50, or even 60 too late?  Is the term ‘late bloomer’ a misguided notion offering false hope?


Oh… the promise and glamour of youth.  And woe to us who are beyond rescue in a society that’s obsessed with popularity and rankings, youthful looks and prodigious fame.

To soothe the wounded spirit, and keep the creative fire burning, Ripple Effects would like to propose the following iconoclastic list in this day ruled by ageism:

  • Top 50 over 53:  To honor the best 50 unpublished writers over 53
  • Top 100 under 67:  To seek out the best 100 blog writers under 67 in lieu of being published in the real world.  Why 100?  I’m sure this is just a minuscule sample of the tens of thousands possible candidates out there in the blogosphere.
  • Top 15 over 74:  To encourage the best 15 yet-to-be literary stars over 74, just to give hope to those still pursuing their life-long dream.
  • Top 3 over 82:  To celebrate the late-bloomers who have finally made it, actually publishing their debut novel after 82.  Why 3?  That’s obvious.

Sour grape?  No, that would be immature.  Let’s just say, virtual tasting of the elusive grape.  Never underestimate the power of hope and the freedom of casting aside the burden of age.


You can still see the ripples at eventide.   — Arti



Photo taken by Arti at The Inside Passage to Alaska,  September, 2009.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

7 thoughts on “Top 20 Under 40”

  1. Well, as I look 50 square in the face in six months I have to say that being a young author might not be the best category to fit in. One has learned so much by one’s late forties! I’d rather be a wise writer, than one in my thirties, personally. Although, Jhumpa Lahiri certainly deserves every accolade she’s ever been given in my opinion. Wow, can you imagine her writing at 50? 😉


    You’ve put it so eloquently… “I’d rather be a wise writer…” I’m not putting down those on the list. As I mentioned the previous list of 1999 had included some of the prominent contemporary writers of today, but then again, they would have all gone over 40 by now. As for Lahiri, I’d enjoy her writing at any age.



  2. It does promote ageism.

    I can understand marketers of books pulling out their hair, trying to figure out how to keep selling books. It’s abysmal the way it’s gone. But it would be very nice if they would do what you have done and balance out a young-up-and-coming list with what you propose! I think it would be brilliant and would get attention.

    When my boss and friend retired after teaching math 35 years and then interim directing our study abroad office, I bemoaned how at almost 70 we were losing him just when we needed his experience and voice the most.


    1. Ruth,

      I can certainly appreciate the challenges facing the literary business today. To keep up with all the rapid changes, many irreversible transformations, eBooks, ePublishing, eWriting. Nevertheless, it’s just arbitrary to draw along the line of age. And I certainly don’t need to give examples of influential writers who are over 40. Further, as you have experienced at your university, often it is to those of senior years that we seek a ‘defining voice’.

      Mind you, about all these techno revolutionary changes opening new pages… both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are the same age: 55. Drawing a line at 40 is as meaningless as picking out the best writers who are left-handed. Nobody really can predict how many more productive years a writer would have, or the lapses in between books. I suppose the trick is to think of more creative marketing ideas.


  3. Another blogger recently posted about the death of musician Gerry Glombecki, at age 63. My response was that it’s always sad to read of the loss of one so young. Perspective is everything, I suppose – especially since I’m 63 myself!

    There are exceptions to every rule, and of course there are wonderful young writers. But I suspect the added experience of age helps to add depth and texture to writing, fiction and non-fiction alike. Making up lists on the basis of age seems flat wrong to me. Maybe we need to have things balanced out with a list of past up-and-comers who never wrote a worthwhile word once they made somebody’s list!

    It’s a bit of an irony that the internet has become a bit of an equalizer in all this. Age makes no difference at all – people are judged on the quality of their work. At WeatherUnderground, a fellow with an absolutely stellar tropical weather blog was made a feature blogger. As a consequence, some biographical details had to be made public. It turned out that our guru – the one we all assumed to be a retired weatherman in his 60s – actually was a schoolkid who started his blog when he was 12 and is now maybe 15 or 16!

    If the New Yorker is going to write about writers, they have to narrow the field somehow. But it would be interesting to know the ages of their writers and editors for this selection!


    1. Wow, that’s quite a story. Bravo to that kid! But of course, I’m not putting down ‘young writers’, the up-and-coming. As a matter of fact, I feel that nowadays, there seems to be more and more prodigious achievements in every field.

      The issue here of course is the question of how much relevance age has with respect to creative writing. With other forms of arts requiring the mastery of motor skills, I could appreciate the age factor, but with creativity vis-a-vis life experiences as in writing, age just might not be a meaningful demarkation. I really feel it’s more a marketing ploy, a business decision rather than an artistic one. And, may I venture one more step, a ‘socio-political’ decision, considering many of these ‘Top 20’ come from other cultural background: Nigeria (Adichie), Peru (Alarcón), Latvia (Bezmozgis), China (Li), Ethiopia (Mengestu), Yugoslavia (Obreht), and Russia (Shteyngart). Theirs are the stories of a different land. But of course, it’s time to acknowledge the richness of the myriads of cultural representations on our North American soil. And writing is most apt for such expressions.

      About the age of the editors? Click here to listen to the Q & A


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