‘What’s so great about young writers?’ Robin Black asked in a New York Times op-ed earlier this year, before calling for an end to age-based awards. ‘Age-based awards are outdated and discriminatory, even if unintentionally so. Emerging writers are emerging writers.’ The link appeared in my Twitter and Facebook feeds, as one of those strangely common zeitgeist-y manifestations: I had just agreed to out myself as an emerging writer over thirty-five to write this article.
Black argues that ‘age-based awards perpetuate the notion that there is a sanctioned norm for when one should get started in a career’. They also feed the highly questionable theory, regularly espoused by literary critics, that youth is a key factor in literary success. In a considered but contradictory essay, Sam Tanenhaus posits that the writers on The New Yorker’s ‘20 under 40’ list may have already peaked, citing a so-called ‘essential truth’ that fiction writers ‘compose their best and most lasting work when they are young’. The title of Robert McCrum’s blustery ‘Let’s face it, after 40 you’re past it’ says all you need to know about his stance.
While neither Tanenhaus nor McCrum stray from their hypotheses, they both concede there are ‘exceptions’. Tanenhaus notes that, yes, Phillip Roth and Don DeLillo seem to have gotten better with age, and Henry James peaked at sixty. McCrum comments that Virginia Woolf wrote her best works in her forties, and that Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing was ‘having a busy old age’. But Lessing’s breakthrough novel The Grass is Singing was published when she was thirty, a fact McCrum uses to bolster – or at least segue back to – his original point: that youth reigns supreme.
What might McCrum or Tanenhaus make, I wonder, of Marion Halligan, Jessica Anderson, Elizabeth Jolley, Alexis Wright or Amy Witting, whose first books were not published until they were well into their forties and fifties? Or of Helen Garner, who made a literary splash as a 30-something single mother in 1977, and whose words are still making us laugh and cry and think almost forty years later. What of Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote her seminal feminist text The Second Sex in her late thirties, but began her most-loved work Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, the first in a series of a four-volume autobiography, at forty-eight. Or Marguerite Duras, who wrote the same story over and over, finally perfecting it in the form of The Lover when she was seventy? Or Joan Didion, Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Ruth Rendell – who have all had long, award-studded literary careers? Or Alice Munro, who was thirty-seven when her first book Dance of the Happy Shades was published, who like Lessing, has had ‘a busy old age’?
‘I do consider this to be a feminist issue,’ Black writes, ‘but not only that. Youthful achievement is often linked to privilege. Not everyone can afford to write when young.’ Her argument is forthright and articulate, and is birthed from personal experience: Black’s first two books of fiction (a short story collection followed by a novel) were published, respectively, when she was forty-eight and fifty-two. On her website she writes about the years of ‘serious self-hatred because I couldn’t get it together to write,’ how she grew ‘more and more bitter as the years slipped by’. She did not begin writing in earnest until 2001, when she was in her late thirties. By that time she had married twice and raised three children, including one with special needs.
There are all sorts of trajectories a writing journey can take, and a writer’s emergence can be stymied or delayed by any number of things. Lack of opportunity or education. Disability or addiction. Physical or mental illness. Choosing, or being forced into, a primary caring role. Being consumed by a demanding career, or by a sense of obligation – to one’s parents perhaps, or one’s community – to meet a prescribed set of expectations. Or, as Stephanie Convery has written about with honesty and eloquence, a writer may be thwarted by her own demons: by jealousy, anxiety, or an unwillingness to fail.
It’s difficult to pinpoint a single reason for my own tortuous route. I am private school and university educated. I do not suffer from any diagnosable mental illness. I’ve been lucky in many ways, privileged. But for a long time I couldn’t see this. I was stubborn and selfish and foolish. I lacked resilience. I made decisions that neither fed my best interests nor my long-term goals. I lost sight of what my goals were. I know now that, had it not been for ongoing issues with my self-esteem – and an unwillingness to admit that this was at the root of many of my problems – I might have made fewer bad decisions, made more of my luck and got to this point in my life sooner. Yet I would be a different person, and a different writer, had I lived differently.
When I first read Black’s piece, I was torn. I agreed with her in principle, and her argument made sense, but I teach young writers and I was once an aspiring young-ish writer myself. When I started my first novel at 26, I thought I was already old, already playing catch up. For a while there, the Vogel – gleaming and beckoning to me from the far away land of 35 – gave me something to strive for. But then I thought about the great writers I know who also happen to be young – their youth is by the by, as it should be. And I thought of the young and youngish and not-so-young people who may one day be great writers, who for whatever reason, aren’t ready yet, who need more time. And I asked myself: what and who are youth-focused awards and opportunities and acknowledgements really for? Do we honestly think that it’s harder for young writers to be published, to break out or break through, to emerge to wherever or whatever the hell it is we’re emerging to? Or is there something else at play: a doubling down perhaps, or a doubling up? A preference for precocity that, when examined, starts to look a lot like prejudice.
Youth-focused awards may not even be in the best interests of those young writers who do happen to hit their straps early. In one of his essay’s more lucid moments, Sam Tanenhaus suggests that such plaudits have the potential to muddy ‘our understanding of how truly original, enduring fiction comes to be written’, and might even infantilise young writers: ‘reducing them to the condition of permanent apprentices who grind steadily toward “maturity” as they prepare to write their “breakthrough” books.’
Wouldn’t all writers, prodigious or otherwise, aspire to a ‘busy old age’ given the chance? Perhaps it is time to consider whether age-based awards and opportunities are really the best way to support that.