Last week I wrote about the thrill of reading long-ago writers I would consider masters of their craft, and in the ensuing discussion, a couple of people intimated I ought to name some current writers who might go on to “master” status in the future. Predicting the future has always been a challenge for me, as evidenced by my record in the stock market, but I agreed to try.
The first part of this test is trying to guess the criteria by which writers will be judged a few decades from now. Tastes, as well as academic and critical standards, change. For example, H.G. Wells was considered a great writer in his day, but today he’s a minor name (although still remembered, which is a feat in itself). Many writers whom we consider great today never achieved big success or notoriety in their time.
But in looking at the history of great writing and great writers, I see some constants:
- Relevance: writing about universal themes that matter to readers in more than one generation
- Innovation: introducing new techniques that change the writing paradigm
- Consistency: always maintaining the highest level of prose
- Recognition: not necessarily popularity in their day, but critical acclaim is, well, critical, whether it comes in their lifetimes or after
- Productivity: great writers are almost always prolific
It would be easy to list writers with those attributes who are already highly regarded, like noting great ballplayers whom consensus has destined for the Hall of Fame. Among those would be people like Philip Roth, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie and scores more who’ve already been identified by major critics.
More challenging, and more intriguing, is trying to guess (and I do mean guess) which relatively unknown writers might eventually break through to master status. But before I go further, let me note how pretentious I feel in just approaching this exercise. There is simply no way to anticipate the outcome of something so judgmental, and so far in the future, and I’m hardly the person to do it. If you really want a list, maybe start with the New Yorker’s infamous 20 Under 40 writers. If you want a more esoteric list, try The National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” Fiction, 2012, or The Guardian’s Twelve of the Best New Novelists or even Starcherone Books’ 30 Under 30: An Anthology of Innovative Fiction by Younger Authors. The lists, and the writers, are everywhere. I’m currently reading the latest issue of the literary journal Granta, which features stories by the best Brazilian novelists of our day—many of these stories indicate great talent.
Me? I’ve thought about this all week, and every time I come up with some writers I could add to these lists, I also come up with reasons why they may not achieve greatness (mostly having to do with the fact that they’re not already on one of these lists). So, essentially, I’m going to cop out and leave it at the guidelines and lists above. My point in mentioning great writers of the past in last week’s blog was not to say they were necessarily better than today’s writers, but to note that they still have value and should not be ignored. Clearly there are dozens, make that hundreds of excellent writers today, who may be considered among the greats in the future and deserve to be read now.