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Article
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Culture
Writing

Not dead yet

‘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 ‘Age-based awards are outdated and discriminatory, even if unintentionally so.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.

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Melissa is a Brisbane-based writer, writing teacher, and MPhil candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Queensland.

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Comments

  1. Thank you for this. I’m trying to be an emerging writer and I’m 44. I’ve been trying to fit this in around a chronic illness that developed when I was 29, and I can also relate to your personal aspects of discouragement and lack of resilience. I get pretty despondent at the amount of age-based awards out there – I would have thought if anything it is harder to write as you get older, when the suckerpunches pile up with the mortgage. But then these awards reflect the age of our culture itself. I suspect it’s something around the 17 mark. If it could just grow itself up into its twenties, have the guts to reset some of its systems, I imagine we’d find our preference for precocity maturing into something deeper and broader, that goes beyond only collagen-pumped writers.

  2. Or perhaps there needs to be a new lot of awards, for writers or poets who publish their first or second book after the age of 35? (Hardly likey, I know!) George Eliot also springs to mind here, as she was nearly 40 when her first ‘proper’ novel was published, and she was 50 when she began to write Middlemarch. Many awards are won by older people, but they tend to have been the ones writing consistently forever, rather than starting late.

    The whole notion of one acceptable trajectory of ‘the writer’ seems antipathetic to a diversity of voices being available, as you say.

    Fascinating article; thank you.

    • ‘writers or poets who publish their first or second book after the age of 35? (Hardly likey, I know!)’

      really?

      i thought the whole point of this article is that you might start writing seriously at any age. and we all know that publishing anything is a two-way street, you don’t simply decide to publish if your work isn’t picked up. so, why would anyone expect to be published before that age?

  3. I think it’s definitely a feminist issue Melissa. But then access to publishing always is. Whatever reasons the publishing industry might want to use for privileging young writers, women will always be disproportionately disadvantaged. I think publishing is just discovering what rock and roll has always known: the photogenic young sell better. When that’s plugged into cyber-culture that valorises 18 year old male entrepreneurs and degrees in creative writing we get the strange publishing world we have now. Writing takes time, and being even half-way decent takes time too.
    Writing an insanely praised work at 25 and still standing by it at 60 are two different things. A three book deal could become a total nightmare.
    Anyway, the great Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote her superb short stories ‘Kingdoms of Fairy’ when in her 80s after a lifetime of writing. Mary Midgley didn’t even start writing til she was in her 50s.

  4. Why all this fixation on writing processes, I wonder? Just write the stuff, if that’s your wont, and dwell on all the other bullshit not.

  5. Um, you do know this is a literary journal? Just as parrot-breeders tend to speak with each other about the breeding of parrots and caseiculturists inevitably converse about the production of cheese, writers tend to talk about the processes of writing.

  6. I can identify, Melissa — there really was no good reason why I couldn’t have begun pursuing my writing career earlier. I do remember being so washed out by the end of every day when I was working full-time, or when fitting study around part-time work, that sitting down and trying to jump into the creative frame of mind just seemed impossible.

    So I waited until now, when I have four small children, too many pets, and everyone needs clean clothes and food, several times a day, and here I am, finding the moments to scratch out stories. It’s less to do with youth and more to do with when you’re ready.

  7. I’m in my fifties, after three decades earning my living writing, and feel like I’m only now really getting started. It takes so long to learn how to write. And Nike, if you don’t want to read writers talking about writing in a magazine about writing, you can simply click on another article.

  8. Yes, but where’s the fun in that, and any counter-argument? Also, or so it seems to dumb old me, these writerly hang-ups appear restricted to writers who harbour pretensions within canonical high-lit forms, whereas writers for this magazine who work outside those forms don’t appear to have writerly hang-ups, they just get on with writing. So, it depends on how you see and read and practise writing, within or without notions of exclusivity and inclusivity, the clubbish former having been falsely and apolitically embellished, historically, I’d further suggest.

    • “these writerly hang-ups appear restricted to writers who harbour pretensions within canonical high-lit forms, whereas writers for this magazine who work outside those forms don’t appear to have writerly hang-ups, they just get on with writing”

      Well that’s just flatly ridiculous.

      And ‘canonical, high-lit forms’ – what does that even mean? Novels? Those uber-popular things stacking the shelves of your favourite bookshop? Righto then.

  9. Thanks so much for your article Melissa. As someone who is forever relieved when they find out this author or that author had their first book published when they were over 40 or 50, I find this article intelligently presents why we need awards for older writers and how being older is a strength in writing not a weakness. I hope the award givers take note.

  10. Charles Olson didn’t start writing poetry until he was 35
    Wallace Stevens didn’t publish anything resembling a mature poem until he was 35 , his first book Harmonium came out in his 40’s . Susan Howe came to poetry circuitously via the visual arts in her late thirties, there are others . The influence all three of these writers have had on American (and English) poetry is profound

  11. Relevant article for me. I was first published at 30, and continued to write under financially difficult circumstances. At 40 I published my debut novel. That was 20 years ago! I still plug away at stories and another novel, but gosh I feel disheartened. The process of writing comes naturally to me, but the self promotion, interviews, photographs – all was too much.

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