News & Politics

Writing Washington

Area authors make the New Yorker’s list of best young writers—and raise questions about the future of Washington fiction

The 20 fiction writers anointed by the New Yorker yesterday as the most promising voices under the age of 40 don't necessarily have a lot in common.  The list is balanced by gender, and diverse in nationality (Canadians do particularly well). The writers vary in style and level of recognition. Other than the fact that all but two of the writers in their thirties, the one common thread through much of their work is an attention to place, whether their characters are fleeing dying Steel Towns, emigrating to Los Angeles, or losing their jobs one by one in Chicago. But of the authors' output, only one of their novels is about the District of Columbia, and only two of the other writers have connections to the Washington area.  That novel, and others like it, say a lot about what's considered serious literature today, and how the city's seen as a potential subject for that kind of writing.Dinaw Mengestu, himself an Ethiopian immigrant and a Georgetown grad, made the list in part on the strength of his first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, about an Ethiopian running a grocery store in a gentrifying DC neighborhood. Jonathan Safran Foer went to Georgetown Day School and then to Princeton, and his writing moved north as well, to Ukraine in Everything is Illuminated and to New York City in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. And Philipp Meyer who hails from Baltimore—specifically, the Hampden neighborhood beloved by trash filmmaker John Waters—was named for his transcontinental road trip tragedy American Rust.

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.

Don’t Miss Another Big Story—Get Our Weekend Newsletter

Our most popular stories of the week, sent every Saturday.

Or, see all of our newsletters. By signing up, you agree to our terms.