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National Book Foundation names 5 under 35

October 5, 2009 |  3:22 pm


The National Book Foundation has named its 2009 class of 5 Under 35 -- five exceptional novelists not yet 35 years old. The list includes Josh Weil, author of "The New Valley," three linked novellas; Karen Russell, author of "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves," a short story collection; and Lydia Peelle, for her short story collection "Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing."

In our review, we called fourth honoree Ceridwen Dovey's "Blood Kin" "a taut and remarkably self-assured first novel." We also reviewed "All the Living," by final honoree C.E. Morgan. "This is a book about life force, the precious will to live and all the things that can suck it right out of a person. It is a first novel, and the writing is simply astonishing: The way small movements betray a character, the effects of hard labor, the damaging power of communication withheld. It is the writing of a much older (at times, even world-weary) author."

It's the fourth time the honors have been awarded; each year, five former National Book Award winners select new, up-and-coming writers. Certainly each of these has written work worthy of renewed attention.

But the honor, as constructed, can't help but call attention to its own arbitrariness. What purpose does the 35-year-old designation serve? It's not exactly young -- a young writer is Jonathan Safran Foer, 25 years old when his highly accomplished debut, "Everything is Illuminated," was published. And if it's meant to find promising emerging writers, why ignore someone like Charles Bock, who turned 38 the year his weighty  "Beautiful Children" was released?

Thirty-five means different things depending on where you sit. A professional athlete might see 35 as the twilight of his career; a hopeful mom as tick-tock time for babymaking. But in the literary world, what marker does 35 signal? Why 5 under 35 at all? Why not 5 debut novelists, or 5 exciting writers, or 5 new authors to watch?

-- Carolyn Kellogg