Brave New (Writing) World: Old-Fashioned Hogwash

The New York Times published a silly article last week about The New Yorker’s recent piece lavishing praise on “20 Writers Under 40.” The New Yorker editors at least acknowledged the arbitrary nature of their exercise, pointing out that at least two writers would have been on the list except for reaching their 40th birthday a little too soon.

But Sam Tanenhaus of The Times takes the whole thing farther, observing:

But the emphasis on futurity misses an essential truth about fiction writers: They often compose their best and most lasting work when they are young.

He goes on to quote Kazuo Ishigura, who seems to think writers have peaked at 40:

There’s something very misleading about the literary culture that looks at writers in their 30s and calls them ‘budding’ or ‘promising,’ when in fact they’re peaking.

Hogwash.

Tanenhaus does list some writers who did, in fact, peak early. But I find it interesting that he included Joyce Carol Oates, who certainly started impressing people early, but who in her 70s is still publishing and getting nominated for awards.

And he doesn’t bother to step outside his narrow idea of great writing (Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald) to consider writers from other genres. Otherwise he might have noticed that Ursula K. Le Guin, who is now 80, just won a Nebula some 39 years after she won her first one. And fond as I am of The Left-Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, I’d be willing to argue that The Telling, published in 2000, is even better.

Or take Carol Emshwiller, who, while she has been writing for many years, started getting real notice for her work in her 80s.

Tanenhaus does deign to mention a few writers who started later and still wrote great things, and to even acknowledge that the work of some writers at 60 beats the hell out of their youthful pieces.

But then he quotes from John Updike (observing that the author was “jesting, but only in part”):

Writers are not scholars but athletes, who grow beer bellies after 30.

That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever read. All I can think is that it is the kind of comment made by male writers who fear people will question their manliness because of their profession.

Tanenhaus says younger writers can remember their childhoods, as if childhood were the only source of inspiration for fiction. Besides I can think of several writers over 40 — Ellen Klages comes to mind — who seem to have a real knack for remembering what it’s like to be, say, 13

I suspect Tanenhaus subscribes to the “born genius” theory, rather than to the idea that a basic level of skill and a lot of hard, useful work can turn someone into a great writer (or athlete or painter). If there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing, it’s that the more you do it, the better you get at it.

Perhaps Tanenhaus just subscribes to the general worship of youth in our culture. Every day I hear people say that only young people understand this or that. But while I appreciate the fresh approaches the young bring into the mix, experience is just as important — and sometimes more important.

I must admit that I take this whole subject personally, because while I’ve been writing since I was a kid (like pretty much every writer I know), I didn’t take my work seriously until after I turned 40. And while I really like some of the work I’ve done so far, I still think my best work is ahead of me.

The great writers I know and read range in age from early 20s to late 80s. I know people whose teenage stories were damn good (mine sucked) and I know people still turning out provocative fiction at a time when many of their peers find it takes too much energy to even read it. And I certainly know plenty of middle-aged people with good stories to tell.

The New Yorker should do an article on 20 writers over 60. Now that would be interesting.

A reminder: I’m particpating in the Clarion West Write-a-thon fundraising event. You can sponsor me here.
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Nancy Jane’s novella, Changeling, is now being serialized on Book View Cafe. You can start at Chapter 1 here; a new chapter will be posted every Sunday. An e-book edition of the whole book will soon be available for a modest price.

You can still find 51 flash fictions and a few other stories on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf, and anthologies containing some of her stories are available through Powell’s.

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Brave New (Writing) World: Old-Fashioned Hogwash — 6 Comments

  1. That’s an interesting list, though it definitely has a few holes, as you point out. And it appears to include great writers who aren’t still writing: has Harper Lee written any fiction since To Kill a Mockingbird? (Which is, of course, a brilliant book.)

  2. Patrick O’Brian sold as a teenager, but his best work, his brilliant work, began coming out in his mid fifties.

  3. I just began reading that issue of the New Yorker the other day and thought the introductory article was so godawful stupid that I stopped reading right there and then. Not only does this opinion ignore the most obvious examples disproving this assumption that most writers flameout after the age of 40 (Twain, Dickens, Kipling, Trollope, Shakespeare, to name just a few), but also ignores writers who didn’t hit their stride until AFTER 40 (Chandler, Michener, Sherwood Anderson, Cervantes.) It was only two years ago when the New Yorker published THIS article about the phenomenon of late bloomers.

    The lack of intellectual rigor displayed in this recent issue’s introduction is unexpected and disappointing, and especially so because it seems to play into pop culture’s obsession with youth-above-all-else. Et tu, New Yorker?

  4. The New Yorker article itself didn’t annoy me near as much as the NY Times piece about it, but that might be because I didn’t bother to read much of it. I mostly just checked the list of authors.

    Thanks, Brigetta, for the link to the Malcolm Gladwell piece. I think I, too, might be a seeker. I’m going to read it a couple more times — I think there’s some guidance in there for my own writing.