June 14, 2010

How young do you have to be to be a good writer?


Sam Tanenhaus

Sam Tanenhaus

The New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40” issue (“a focused look at the talent sprouting and blooming around us”) continues to draw more criticism than praise — the latest, however, isn’t from someone in alternative press or blog world carping about who did or didn’t make the list, but from someone in the mainstream criticizing the fact that it’s an age-based group.

No less than New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, in an essay slated for an upcoming issue of the NYTBR, says,

The trouble, perhaps, is that this definition of “young writer,” which owes less to literary considerations than to the intersecting categories of sociology and marketing, muddies our understanding of how truly original, enduring fiction comes to be written. Worse, it threatens to infantilize our writers, reducing them to the condition of permanent apprentices who grind steadily toward “maturity” as they prepare to write their “breakthrough” books.

It also rules out the idea that, er, maybe older people can write well, too, or better, or differently, says Tanenhaus. After all,

Joseph Conrad didn’t become a major writer until his 40s (after long years at sea). Katherine Anne Porter was 40 when her first short-story collection was published. Virginia Woolf entered her prime in her 40s. Norman Rush’s first novel wasn’t published until he was in his 50s. Nor is it to say that brilliant young novelists don’t mature into greater ones. Henry James peaked at about 60. Roth reached an extraordinary phase in his 60s. The Bellow of “Herzog” (49) is a greater artist than the Bellow of “The Adventures of Augie March” (38), which itself introduced a wholly new aesthetic to the English-language novel. And the Don DeLillo of “Underworld” (60) far surpasses the DeLillo of “End Zone” (35).

In the end, “the most meaningful ‘fight’ waged by literary artists is interior. Their principal adversary is not a noisy culture or inattentive readers. It is themselves.”

And maybe publications that seek to equate art making solely with the young, beautiful, and marketable?

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.