for 4 July 1996. Updated every THURSDAY.



Taken for Granta

Absurd enterprises often prove the
most worthwhile. For its 54th issue,
Granta, the largest circulation
literary quarterly in the US and
Great Britain (where it is
published) settled on a doozy: to
identify and publish work from the
20 best American novelists under 40
years of age. The result hit stores
two weeks ago - and the lack of
gratitude on the part of the book
reviewing press would be laughable
if it weren't so predictable. Rants
about overlooked writers and shrill
columns about the selection process
are to be expected - as is their
blind spot for Granta's singular
accomplishment. When has a magazine,
literary or otherwise, better
illustrated exactly how to execute
this sort of "best of" thing? And
Granta delivers a bonus, too: fodder
for a dozen more "death of the
novel" editorials.
Sure, the literary press's scorn and
whining over the marketing
surrounding Granta's star
search/literary roulette hardly
surprises. Book people are squeamish
about marketing - perhaps it reminds
them too much of new media. But one
could hardly ask for more tasteful
marketing of "serious fiction" than
Granta has served up this summer:
clever direct mail (one million
pieces), in-store displays
(affectionately known as "dumps" in
publishingspeak), one of the
classier parties at the ABA (in an
art deco hall at the Chicago Zoo),
and readings at the New School in
New York (advertised with offbeat -
but not too wacky - postcards).
The problem with Granta's "Best of
Young American Novelists" issue lies
not in the marketing, nor, for that
matter, in the content. The stories
and excerpts are, in fact, ideally
banal - with a few unfortunate
exceptions. After all, if the
writing were really all that, folks
would be talking about it instead of
Granta. As it is, the "serious
fiction" represented in issue 54 is
neither all that serious, nor (to
judge by the routine inclusion of
autobiographical detail) all that
So many of the stories share the same
tones and structures, one is tempted
to critique not with spirited prose,
but with a chart - a Consumer
Reports scale of Literary
Product(TM). Indeed, there'd be
stiff competition in the categories
of Self-Consciousness ("Go ahead:
slap me for the literary allusion,"
says Deneen, narrator of David
Haynes's "Something Called Crab
Deluxe"), Discernable Origin in a
Writer's Program Exercise (Stewart
O'Nan, "A Fan Letter": "Today's
assignment: Write from the point of
view of an obsessive fan. OK,
begin."), Cloying Preciousness (Kate
Wheeler's pretty clearly wins in
this category), and Best Author
Photo (David Guterson, as the New
York Observer pointed out - what
shapely dogs!).
The most subtle lesson Granta editor
Ian Jack offers those considering a
"best of" campaign of their own: if
you want to produce a "best of"
issue, use a committee. Consensus
judging selects for work of a
highest common denominator, or HCD.
With the HCD approach, risky, raw,
dizzying works by lesser-knowns
don't stand a chance. You want
solid, uninspired, even overwrought
work that few critics can gnaw
because it's so well-groomed - like
outfield grass. It's reading on par
with a lazy, scoreless inning of
baseball on an oppressively hot
August day between two teams nowhere
near the pennant race. No runs. No
hits. No errors. No men left... Next
up? A work-in-progress from Allen
Kurzweil, who can write a routine
grounder like nobody's business.
Drawing further on Jack's example, be
certain to choose an arbitrary age
limit, like 28. Nevermind that the
novel is rare among popular forms in
that it favors maturity. Why insist
on an accomplished author when one
can instead publish yet another
urgent, narcissistic coming-of-age
tale - a show-offy, Bright Lights,
Big Nothing piece from an Elizabeth
Wurtzel-in-the-making who can make
it seem that at any moment
a party (or a suicide) might happen?
Also, be sure not to take advantage
of whatever outsider status you
might have. The last thing you'll
want to do as the editor of a "best
of" survey is to imagine that you
have a unique point of view being
across The Pond or wherever you
reside. Hire local judges, so they
can judge their colleagues. The
advantage here is you're less prone
to choose someone fresh, or that you
personally find compelling, like
Paul Beatty, Chang Rae-Lee, or Kaye
Gibbons. There's also a chance a
local judge will make some
controversial oversight - David
Foster Wallace, say, or Nicholson
Baker - and this is great because
you'll get press explaining it all
Clearly, you'll be tempted along the
way to assert yourself, maybe
override a suggestion by a fellow
judge, and this is where Jack
shines. "We decided to let the
shortlist stay as it was," he
explains in the editorial opening
Granta 54. "Emendations would need
to be wholesale, which would snub
the hard work of our fifteen
regional judges, turn our exercise
into a celebration of the previously
celebrated." Editors, make note of
this clever motion covering Jack's
ass. Note that his conviction in the
cockamamie bureaucracy of the
selection process smells like
integrity. Also, pay close attention
to his concern for the regional
judges. What's the experience of
100,000+ readers next to the
feelings of one of the fifteen
regional judges?
Of course, in the course of your
"best of" planning, you may
experience anxiety over sticking to
the already celebrated - and
someone's sure to notice that even
some of the most celebrated in your
collection are not represented by
their most up-to-date work, like Fae
Myenne Ng's three-year-old excerpt
from Bone. This is where
you steel your nerves and include
something new from Jeffrey
Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Robert
O'Connor, Elizabeth McCracken, Mona
Simpson, and/or Tom Drury. While too
much work of this quality might make
readers miss their bus stops, it's
okay to include at least these few -
for the subscribers.
Finally, despite what anyone may tell
you, you want your "best of"
anthology to add up, to have a sum.
And here is where Jack's process
bears fruit: by selecting by
committee, sticking to stupid rules
even when mistakes are made, and
choosing careful, Writing Program
material plagued with
self-consciousness, you'll have a
collection that suggests that it's
not just CivilWarLand that's in bad
decline, but the theme park of
American fiction as well.
And this points to the final
delicious, if slightly sinister
irony, one you'll want to cultivate
because it will bring you acid
smirks and reptile smiles at the
oddest times. See, even as your
magazine is out there on display in
dumps coast to coast, trumpeting the
best of new fiction in the United
States, what it has to show from
these novelists will be enough to
make the marketing seem wasted, like
youth, on the wrong people.

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