Area authors make the New Yorker’s list of best young writers—and raise questions about the future of Washington fiction
Edward P. Jones is too old to have been named to the New Yorker's list, but like Mengestu's novel, his short stories are set not in political Washington, or even among its wealthy, white native community, but among its poorer residents of color. Their dramas don't need to be about the fate of the world. The fates of families, and neighborhoods, is heft enough. In a sense, Mengestu and Jones are beginning to do for DC what writers like Jonathan Lethem and Joseph O'Neill have done for Brooklyn, burnishing a city or a borough's reputation by elevating long-term and long-overlooked residents (sometimes by juxtaposing them with newcomers) and their experiences to literary greatness.
But it's also telling that there aren't political novels, or novels about Washington elites in these authors' still-growing bodies of work. That doesn't mean that there aren't people writing, and writing extremely well about the city. But some of them, like Tom Clancy and George Pelecanos, write genre fiction, a label that's difficult to overcome unless you're Michael Chabon, and satirists like Christopher Buckley and Kristin Gore are practicing commentary more than literature.
And perhaps it's just that politics today are less inspiring as a grand canvas. A crabbed figure like David Vitter doesn't exactly have the tragic scope of a Willie Stark. Mr. Smiths know enough not even to bother to come to Washington. Grocery store owners, it seems, have more dignity, more potential for sympathy, and more substance, than politicians, at least if you're an up and coming novelist.