Forget 40 Under 40, What About Three Under Three?
Three Under Three, Shalom Auslander
Much has been said about this year’s Three Under Three contest, much of it false, much of it accusatory and much of it of a vitriolic personal nature directed at myself. I would like to address some of these issues head-on, and in as straightforward and honest a manner as I can.
In the first place, it is true that I turned forty this year, and it is equally true that, for the fortieth time, my writing did not make it into the New Yorker “Forty Under Forty” issue, or Granta’s “Forty Under Forty” issue, or the LA Times’ “Forty Faces Under Forty” issue or the Guardian’s annual “Forty American Writers Under Forty to Watch” or even McSweeney’s “Forty Writers Under Forty Who Live Near Us in Brooklyn and We Hang Out With Quite a Bit or At Least Would Like To.” There are many reasons for that, not the least of which is that they are all shitty magazines dedicated to the death of writing and literature. Would I like to have been included? Of course. We all want external validation of our years of sweat and toil. But to suggest my exclusion from these lists in the last year of my eligibility for them somehow affected my judging of the Paradigm Day School “Three Under Three” Writing Contest is not just baseless slander, it is armchair psychology of the very worst kind.
To remind everyone: I was asked (without any offer of remuneration at all, mind you) to read through the many submissions and choose “the three writers under three years of age who capture the inventiveness and vitality of contemporary American pre-school literature.”
I shall come back to this.
Much of the vitriol directed at me has come from the family and friends of young Zachary Goldfarb, and so I would like to address his submission first. I can understand their disappointment, but frankly, Zachary’s “story” was nothing of the kind. Here is his submission, copied without alteration:
“David likes the snow.
The snow is cold.
So is ice.”
Well, whoop-de-fucking-doo. “David” (we can assume this is a fictional Zuckerman-like stand-in for Zachary himself) likes the snow. Do I need Mr. Goldfarb to tell me this? Of what consequence can this preference for snow be? Where, more importantly, is the story? David simply is. He does nothing, desires nothing. He exists, if that, and nothing more. If perhaps we had been told that David did not like the snow, and the snow was cold, we could at least imagine the beginnings of a story, a conflict, a drama: perhaps David will try to find warmth (a quest of sorts)? Perhaps he will come, in the end, to like the snow? But as it is written, all we know is that David likes the snow. If there is a connection between David’s appreciation of snow and the relative coldness of the snow and ice, it is left to the reader to discern. Should I reward this? The snow is cold, Zachary, that is true. So is the ice. And so is the world, and so is life. Get used to it.
The second submission, from Sally Ryan, two:
“Michael is nice. He shares his toys and never hits. Today he was sick. I hope he feels better.”
Good God. Where to begin? Let’s grant, for just a moment, that when Ms. Ryan penned this little tale, she knew that in future chapters the obviously Jesus-like simplistic character of Michael would deepen and somehow become more complex and multi-dimensional. And let’s also grant that the plot issue she sets up here (Michael’s illness and her concomitant hope for his recuperation) will be resolved in the pages to come. Let’s grant all that. But shall we also grant that this is fiction, which the contest expressly limits itself to? Shall we just ignore the fact that there is in fact a Michael in Ms. Ryan’s class, a Michael who is known the school over for sharing his toys and never hitting and had, at the time of the writing of this “story,” a very nasty flu? What lesson would we be teaching Sally if we let her win a fiction contest with a clearly non-fictional work? What we have here in Sally Ryan is our very own James Frey, but rather than faking reality, she has chosen to fake fiction. I, for one, am sickened.
And so we come to the winner:
“Harley was our dog. She is dead now. I want to get a cat.”
At last. This is art. This is pathos. This is story. And yes, this is also my own entry. But can you not see the difference between this small gem and the earlier (failed) attempts of Mr. Goldfarb and Ms. Ryan? Here we have sadness and rage and pain and even, yes, in the very last sentence, a flicker of hope for the future. A beginning: Harley was our dog. A middle: She is dead now. An ending, a ray of light: I want to get a cat. A simple story, but a deceptive one, for the main character has changed, has he not? He is hardened now, slightly older and more knowing of the vicissitudes of life. He loved a dog, and yet still, he wants a cat. He can’t go on, he goes on. Is that not the modern Everyman? Falling, in our humanity, in love; witnessing, in our mortality, death; and rising, thanks to our damned humanity, to love once more. I read this story and hope, despite myself, for the future of literature. I looked, as I had been instructed, for “the three writers under three years of age who capture the inventiveness and vitality of contemporary American pre-school literature,” and I found not three. I found not even one. And so I submitted my own. If that annoys some of the other entrants, or their parents, perhaps they should think of literature before themselves.
(The award ceremony will be held at Skytop Bar and Lounge, Saturday night, 9 PM)
Shalom Auslander, author of Hope: A Tragedy, on the newest list of the world's most promising young writers, Three Under Three. This piece is published in The Picador Book of 40.