Cultural Sensitivity with Zach Buscher

Zach in 2009

Cultural Sensitivity with Zach Buscher is Zach's blog.  Here you will find random and fairly frequent writings, ramblings, and rants.  And maybe the occasional new poem.  Go ahead, and comment and share.

some other people

Leah Meisterlin architect extraordinaire
Phillip Marotta  friend-o
Quinsigamond Community College employer
A Cappella Zoo  journal for which i read
Sonora Review journal for which i used to edit/read
Absent Magazine i like to read 
Diagram Magazine ditto
Fence Magazine ditto
Fou ditto 
Glitterpony ditto
H_NGM_N ditto
Juked ditto
notnostrums ditto
Noö Journal ditto
Spork ditto
wheelhouse magazine ditto
Peter Jay Shippy poet
Silliman's Blog blog

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And What Would a "20 Under 40" for Poets Look Like?


So the newest New Yorker features a list titled "20 Under 40," AKA 20 prose practitioners worth watching. I have yet to procure a hard copy of the issue (which came out on Monday, June 7), but some incarnation of the article does appear online.  You get to click on their faces to see who they are and what they're all about. In not one instance did I know whom I was looking at, yet I did mistake Joshua Ferris for Jonathan Safran Foer. My bad.  After all, 5 of the 10 male authors are wearing glasses, a surprisingly low number (why are so many authors stricken with poor vision? Why are so many authors so short?).  You'll notice that, by contrast, none of the female authors are bespectacled. What, as they say, is up with that?

Rather than gripe about the list itself (though it did bring some questions to mind about whether age matters at all, which I'll try to address later), I wondered what a list of "20 Under 40 (Poets)" would look like. It's tough to imagine such a list. Here's my shoddy attempt:

Lara Glenum
Johannes Göransson
Matthea Harvey
Dorothea Laskey
Ben Lerner
Chelsey Minnis
Ben Mirov
Zachary Schomburg 
Brenda Shaughnessy
Joshua Marie Wilkinson 

As you'll see, I had trouble coming up with more than ten "heavy hitters" who did not in some way offend my
sensibilities. In fact, I really like all these poets! Still, the list is quite flawed. Due to the relatively low profile of many poets and my relatively low reach when compared to The New Yorker research team, some of the poets I have listed (I could not find the ages of Ms. Glenum nor Mr. Görranson) might be more than 40. Some (Chelsey Minnis and Brenda Shaughnessy) might have just turned 40. Others (including Jennifer L. Knox, an awesome poet whose "Pimp My Ride" actually appears in the current issue of The New Yorker) I did not include because they are very likely just over 40.

If my list were to include poets under 50, I would find the whole process much easier. As they say, there are very few prodigies in poetry. There was Rimbaud, yes. I suppose you could count James Tate, one of my favorite poets of all time, but can great accomplishment in your early 20s cast you as a prodigy? Probably not. I used to be obsessed with the whole idea of publishing very young. I'm talking young as in 20; I am 25 right now. It took me until very recently to realize that good writing is oftentimes hard won. Other times it's not, but you still have to keep pushing yourself. That said, I still obsess over the ages and accomplishments of my contemporaries: Who's publishing what and where and how much? How can I publish there too? But I just got rejected from there, does that mean their work is better than mine?

My rational mind understands that it's not a competition at all, aside from the one between myself and my potential and all the daily "wrestling with the blank page." That these lists (mine, NY, etc.) have a tendency to rank is certainly counterproductive. Yet there is another struggle, the struggle of reaching an audience. Insofar as The New Yorker list got me to check out 15 new authors, they have done a service for a certain niche consumer like myself while simultaneously supporting the authors who have popped up on my radar.

Let me return to a comparison with The New Yorker list, the 50/50 gender ratio of my own creation being a function of pure coincidence. Ok, so why do I feel the need to say it? For some reason the diversity of The New Yorker list (and now I'm griping...) feels sort of (I'm going to bust out the fiction workshop parlance here) forced. God bless young Teá Obreht, a fantastic author in her own right I'm sure, but I can just imagine the Eds desperately trying to find a worthy writer under the age of 25. These words from The New York Times "making of" story don't much help matters:

“If they had too much in common, it would be really boring,” he [David Remnick] said in an interview. “This is not an aesthetic grouping. The group is a group of promise, enormous promise. There are people in there that are very conventional in their narrative approach, and there are people who have a big emphasis on voice. There are people who are in some way bringing you the news from another culture.”

I wonder if this is even as problematic as I am making it out to be. Still, I have to feel sorry for any fiction-eers cut from consideration because they were born in Delaware rather than the former USSR. But I guess that's ok, right?  If it's in service of a greater push towards diversity, right?  Right, right?

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Reader Comments (10)

What the list ended up as didn't seem representative of what the original idea for the list was described as. I thought it was going to be the top 20 names-- writers with great books, writers who were editors, writers changing the landscape of literature (whatever that means-- through style or influence or breadth of work).

But it was just a list of promising writers. Especially with the inclusion of Obreht, it seems like a list of 20 writers instead of the list of 20 writers under 40.

What confuses me is their reasoning; at the same time they're discussing the rubric for deciding who to include (and explaining the role of "promise" in their decisions), they're also saying that the list probably wouldn't change from year to year. Who knows what powerhouse young writer might show up next year? If promise is a key factor, then this list seems really short-lived. It puts writers with multiple books alongside writers with nothing more than (some amazing) journal publications. The point is, some of the people here have already lived up to their "promise" while others are yet to deliver.

It's a helpful list if you're looking for great new literature; but the undertaking seems kind of ridiculous and the results will always seem temporary.

June 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJamison

I don't really understand the mentality of feeling sorry for people who happen to be born into positions of privilege. An American writer born in Delaware will probably have advantages that a writer living in the U.S. but born in the USSR doesn't. The American writer will never have to deal with language barriers or xenophobia, for example. *Maybe* the American guy is at a disadvantage when it comes to making this list, but what about all the other advantages he has? And why not feel sorry for all the other writers born in the USSR who couldn't be considered, once they'd filled the born-in-the-USSR quota?

I have no stake in the list, though, not being a fiction writer. :)

June 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElisa

an alternate 20 under 40 list:

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More fucking please!

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