The Worst Young American Novelists
by Ryan Chapman
At first the news was a source of humor for Jonathan and Rose. They would list more deserving names on the fridge notepad, or point out future nominees on the front table at McNally Jackson. Rose even sewed the honorific onto the breast pocket of his favorite bathrobe. When Jonathan brushed his teeth, idly studying himself in the bathroom mirror, the looping cursive resembled an illegible doodle.
Now, six weeks later, he ascended the steps to the private arts club lining Gramercy Park. Attending the party went against his better judgment—Rose’s too, she was staying in—but he was curious, and indulging his curiosity was a professional obligation.
For the third time since leaving the apartment Jonathan confirmed his tweed blazer hid the old wine stain on his shirt. All good. He crossed the lobby and gave his name at check-in. An intern for the magazine welcomed him, plucked a complimentary tote bag from a pile at her feet, and directed him upstairs.
Thank god it was packed. Jonathan recognized a few faces; it appeared nobody else had accepted the tote. He spotted Lewison at the bar, gesturing for more scotch. Lewison St. Olaf: also on the list, also sporting a tweed blazer.
"Good to see you, brother," he said.
Jonathan shook his hand. "I knew associating with you spelled trouble."
"Nonsense. Think of the publicity! Last time everyone got a big sales bump."
"That can’t be true." Jonathan ordered a red wine, tasted it, and sent it back. The second one was passable.
Lewison winked at someone in the crowd. "Not a sales bump per se, but something. Conference keynotes, teaching gigs, et cetera et cetera."
"You don’t say it twice. Just: et cetera."
"Bloody hell. Here comes Heidi."
Jonathan knew her by reputation. Heidi made a fortune writing straight-to-ebook glosses of the previous year's bestsellers. She clinked her glass with theirs.
"Heidi, lovely as always," Lewison said. "What is that you're drinking?"
"Oh this? It's something I came up with. Two parts vodka, one part Cynar—"
"Forget I asked," Lewison said. "How's sales?"
"Well, Sing, Crawdads, Sing is being optioned for French television. Very exciting."
"Which one was that?" Jonathan asked. "The Western?"
"No, this one's about a feral girl in the Bayou who exacts vigilante justice. My agent says it's my third highest-seller. Wait—" She checked her phone. "Second highest-seller.”
"Vigilante justice is very 'in' these days," Jonathan said.
"So's feralism," Heidi replied. She reconsidered. "Ferality?"
"Those both don't sound right," Jonathan said.
Lewison held up a finger. "Feraldry."
Heidi turned to him. "So how'd you end up here?"
"Who knows. I'm here for the open bar."
The party quieted. The magazine’s editor in chief stepped onto a low stage.
"Hello, hello everyone! Thank you all for coming. I'm Lauren Elkes, and can I just say bravo to our latest crop of writers. What you've accomplished is truly unique."
The crowd applauded. Jonathan joined in, then caught himself and stopped.
"Tonight we highlight a range of literary projects, from memoir, to autobiography, to autofictional verse epics. And my assistant tells me the average page count is up 40% over last time!"
More applause. A man in the back let out a vociferous woohoo.
"And now, we'd like to have a brief reading by a few of you—just kidding. No program tonight, just my little speech. Now go mingle! Enjoy yourselves! There's no arsenic in the punch bowl, I swear."
Some polite laughter, followed by more applause. The editor in chief handed the microphone to a harried assistant, who asked the owner of a red scooter to please move it from the lobby doors.
Jonathan circled the party, catching up with acquaintances and downing a fair amount of the cab franc. Party talk blurred together: "No, adverbs are incredibly underrated… I'll tell you my secret: Wikipedia… Everyone loves a dead kid, works every time…"
Jonathan collapsed into a chesterfield sofa. People squeezed by, knocking his legs no matter which way he moved. Who were these people? Jonathan never claimed to be great, but he put his butt in the chair and did the work. He wrote his truth every Monday to Friday, and he made sure Seamless was on the table when Rose returned from the hospital. Surely he wasn't the worst.
He spied the editor in chief at the entrance, putting on her coat. Jonathan beelined toward her.
"Ms. Elkes, I'm sorry to catch you as you're leaving—"
"No bother, hello, hello, nice to meet you. It’s Jonathan, right?"
"That's me." He took a deep breath. "I have to ask: Why me? I didn't plagiarize anything, or write a sequel to the Bible, or that Objectivist opera…" He sounded desperate. "Why am I…" He gestured to the crowd. "Here?"
"You mean you don't know? Oh dear. Usually people figure it out. Or their loved ones tell them."
She rifled through her clutch, extracting a sheaf of folded notes.
"Let's see here. Yes. Got it." She looked up to Jonathan. "You're a fraud."
"That's what it says."
"See for yourself."
The list was printed in Times New Roman—Jonathan's favorite font—and there it was, halfway down the page: his name, followed by one word. His chest seized as if he might vomit. Jonathan bent over, holding open his tote bag. The feeling passed. He stood, and a tingling sensation enveloped his body.
"Oh dear. Are you okay?"
Jonathan nodded. He felt fucking fantastic.
© Ryan Chapman, 2019
Ryan Chapman is a Sri Lankan-American writer originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota. His work has appeared online at The New Yorker, GQ, Bookforum, BOMB, Guernica, McSweeney’s, and The Believer. He is a recipient of fellowships from Vermont Studio Center and the Millay Colony for the Arts. He lives in upstate New York. Riots I Have Known is his first novel, and is currently longlisted for the Center for Fiction's Debut Novel Prize.
The Worst Young American Novelists was read by E. James Ford on August 20th, 2019 as part of the 2019 Short & Sweet Flash Fiction edition.