SCOTT SIMON, host:
Granta Magazine announced its list of the best of young American novelists. That list includes 21 fiction writers under the age of 35, some that many readers might have heard of, including Jonathan Safron Foer, Nicole Kraus, and Gary Shteyngart, for example, but quite a few that they haven't heard of. Granta named their first list 10 years ago. It included Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides and Sherman Alexie but it passed over the likes of Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace, Michael Cunningham and Donna Tartt.
We're joined now by two of the competition's judges. Ian Jack is the editor of Granta. He joins us from our studios in London.
Mr. Jack, thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. IAN JACK (Editor, Granta Magazine): Very nice to be here. Thank you.
SIMON: And Paul Yamazaki is a bookseller at City Lights Books in San Francisco, a famous place, joining us from member station KQED.
Paul, thank you very much for being with us.
Mr. PAUL YAMAZAKI (Bookseller, City Lights Books): It's a pleasure, Scott. Thank you so much.
SIMON: As a bookseller, Paul, what do you look for when you decide what names to put on this list?
Mr. YAMAZAKI: It really comes down to story and just - and language. It was one of the pleasures of being so focused for a six, seven-month period that every morning you get up at four or five and spend two or three hours before going to work, and just to be immersed in language and story. And so that - just like it is, as we try to do in the bookstore, putting together this list was very much similar to that.
Mr. JACK: I agree with Paul. It's very hard to know what you want, or even what you like, until you read it. And so one uses - one has to use abstractions like language and story. And I think what appeals - always appeals to me about the fact of reading is being introduced to a world which I'm persuaded is believable, that I believe in for the length of time I'm reading about it.
And also, I'm very attracted to things that describe quite familiar things in new or interesting ways. And above all, I think, I'm looking for, as a reader, or as the editor, I'm looking for a writer who, in a way, is more intelligent than I am - if you see what I mean - somebody whose intelligence comes through, who, in a kind of - not - non-didactic way, but from whom I can learn something in the story that is given me.
And of course, I think, pleasure. You know, pleasure's often discounted in these things. The pleasure of reading is often forgotten when it comes to criticism of books. I've been a judge quite a few times in various prizes, including the Booker, and it's quite odd how actually you've enjoyed a book and then when it comes to the actual meeting, you often find that because you have to be critical, you are, it seems to me, in some sense, kind of absurdly critical. In fact, all your kind of critical antennae come to bear at the actual judges' meeting. And the pleasure you've had from this book tends to be forgotten. So I think judging is often too critical an activity.
SIMON: A third of the writers on your list were born or raised outside of the United States.
Mr. JACK: Yes. Yes.
SIMON: That's extraordinary.
Mr. JACK: Yes. How representative that is of the bulk of fiction produced by everybody under the age of 35, I'm not sure. But certainly, it seems to suggest to me that attractive, interesting American fiction has a very large input now from people who've recently come to the United States of America. And isn't that symptomatic of America as a whole in which it's changing very quickly now, I would think.
SIMON: Paul, what is it - people who come to the United States from another society, they see things with fresh eyes, they are eager to express something?
Mr. YAMAZAKI: Yes. I think what we see here, and I think what makes so much of this fiction so exciting and so attractive is that they have a different relationship to the English language, and I think we can go back whether we look at Claude McKay, or Joseph Conrad or Nabokov that people who's - are bilingual and bi-literal and bicultural have a different relationship to the language, and I think part of what - not just in the English language, but as we look at the 20th century, whether it's Spanish or French, or it's Italian, that we've seen that language change and be shaped by people who bring a different outlook.
SIMON: Let me ask you about some of the writers who appear in here and their stories. There's a story in here called "Valets" by the writer Rattawut - oh, Mr. Jack, can you help me?
Mr. JACK: What I would say Lapcharoensap.
SIMON: He was born in Chicago, raised in Bangkok and lives in Brooklyn, where he teaches school. And reading the story that he wrote in here, "Valets," it's absolute total immersion in another world. Just wonderfully done.
Mr. JACK: It's not Thailand in any kind of sense of a magical distant, very foreign county, with primitive ways and peasants and so on. It's Thailand as it probably, a lot of it is now, which is people trying to make a living, running restaurants for tourists, and having great rivalries over these restaurants.
SIMON: The writer Z.Z. Packer has an excerpt from, I guess, a novel in progress. The excerpt is called "Buffalo Soldiers," the novel in progress is called "The Thousands." And this is just a wonderful excerpt that describes what it might have been like for African-American soldiers in battle during the Civil War.
Mr. YAMAZAKI: This is probably one of the elements of writing that really excites me, is the return to the historical novel, the re-investigation of American history is something that I've been anticipating for a long time and I'm delighted to see that Z.Z. is taking on the challenge and I can't wait to read the whole novel.
Mr. JACK: I think quite a few people, I mean, I've certainly read quite a number of novels by African-Americans, which are delving into American history. I would hope this is a, you know, a singularly kind of successful one.
SIMON: Let me ask you about one more name in here. Gary Shteyngart.
Mr. JACK: He is a very witty, comic, inventive writer. And he's writing about that strange interesting febrile bit of the world which is Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and its conjunction with the States.
Mr. YAMAZAKI: I think we're probably in one of the most interesting periods of American fiction in the last 50 years. I think people will look back to this period and say this was as rich as between 1945 and 1960. And I think because of a lot of things that we've talked today - people coming from other parts of the world, how all these - and Americans looking out - are changing the nature of the language. And I find it, as a bookseller, very exciting.
Mr. JACK: And I agree with Paul. I think there's so much happening in society now that badly needs a novelistic descriptive eye that really this should be a very, very good time for American writing.
SIMON: And 10 years from now, how would you judge the worth of this list?
Mr. JACK: Well, I would think that we've got about seven people right, three people half-right, and maybe the rest wrong. That would be my historic experience of these things. And really, I mean, I think that's an important thing to say. A list is a list. You know, we didn't have, as you pointed out in your introduction, Michael Chabon, we didn't have David Foster Wallace. How on earth could we not have had those people in our first best of young Americans 10 years ago? And I think the answer can only be that some, you know, some people didn't notice or, you know, they didn't read properly or they were antagonistic for other reasons. So I think if we get half of it right, we'll have done very well.
SIMON: You know, in the American game of baseball, that's hitting 500, which is unheard of as a rate of success.
Mr. JACK: I don't know, but I believe you.
Mr. YAMAZAKI: You know, I would totally go with that. I would be happy with 500.
SIMON: Paul Yamazaki is a bookseller at City Lights Books in San Francisco. Ian Jack, the editor of Granta in London. Thanks very much.
Mr. JACK: Thank you.
Mr. YAMAZAKI: Thank you, Scott.
(Soundbite of music)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.