First there was the New Yorker list. Then the Telegraph followed suit last week. With the type of list most likely to make me hate myself: Geniuses-under-a-certain-age list. The jealousy factor is not helped by the fact that they always choose hot ones as the poster boy/girl. Zadie Smith I’m looking at you. Not in a creepy way at all.
Feelings of inadequacy aside, I was happy to see some great-at-any-age authors on The Telegraph’s 20 under 40 list, including Ross Raisin, Evie Wyld, and Dan Rhodes. I also appreciated the fact that both list-makers sheepishly owned up to some of the problems inherent in these lists: they’re one round number short of arbitrary, they have to strike a balance between names we’ve heard of so that we feel smart, but throw in some unknowns so that we don’t feel too smart. And then there’s the matter that women are often underrepresented on these lists because a lot of them don’t write their debuts until they’ve paid their dues to motherhood. But lists are fun, and they do genuinely bring much-deserved attention to some writers who have yet to hit the big time.
All this talk about talented young whippersnappers encouraged me to dig out McSweeney’s old “Five Under Five” contest, an innovative award created in 1998 to shed light on the greatest literary minds of the kindergarten set. The grand prize went to then four-year-old Sean for his piece, “The Big Truck.” According to his bio for the article, “Sean Oberdorfer was born in 1994 in Washington, D.C. He attends Wilson Lane Montessori School in Bethesda, Maryland, where he studies ceramics, gymnastics, and modern dance. He plans to attend The Norwood School in Potomac, Maryland, next fall.” It doesn’t look like Oberdorfer has produced anything since then (classic second book syndrome, probably).