Wednesday, June 23, 2010

When Do Writers Peak?

The June 14th edition of the New Yorker contains a list of "20 Under 40"; that is, 20 authors under 40 years old handpicked by their editors exemplifying the best the world has to offer.  If you have time, give it a read.  The stories are a mixed lot.  Some are stand-alone works, others are excerpts from larger pieces.  All are worth your attention.

My initial reaction to the stories was jealousy tinged with admiration.  They all write far better than I, and now they bear the New Yorker stamp of approval.  How I wish to have made such a list, to have produced something of such worth!  But time is on my side, for I only recently celebrated my 26th birthday.  Writers take a while to peak.  Right?

Wrong, says Sam Tanehaus of the New York Times.  His article brings up a depressingly large number of authors who wrote their masterpieces while they were under 40:

 "Unsurprisingly, in youth-obsessed America, writers have often done their best work early. Melville was 32 when “Moby-Dick” was published (after the successes of “Typee” and “Omoo”). The writers of the lost generation found their voices when they were very young: Fitz­gerald (28, “The Great Gatsby”), Hemingway (27, “The Sun Also Rises”). Faulkner lagged slightly behind. He had just turned 32 when “The Sound and the Fury” was published. Then again, it was his fourth novel.

The celebrated post-World War II generation was just as precocious. Norman Mailer was only 25 when “The Naked and the Dead,” his classic, and enormous, war novel came out. And James Jones’s even longer work, “From Here to Eternity,” was published when he was 29. The indefatigable warhorses who grew up in the 1950s were also good very young: Joyce Carol Oates (31, “Them,” her fifth novel); Philip Roth (26, “Goodbye Columbus”); John Updike (28, “Rabbit, Run”); Thomas Pynchon (26, “V.”)."
I have no illusions of being the next Roth, or Updike, or Pynchon.  Still, one of the reasons I left the music industry is its relentless focus on youth.  I envy my girlfriend her slow development as a fine artist; she is not likely to produce masterworks in her twenties.  Instead, her early years are supposed to be full of struggle as she searches for her voice and vision.  Only later, after mastering her craft, will she produce her greatest work.

Perhaps this is another boneheaded bit of conventional wisdom; perhaps all our flames burn faster than we would prefer.

Still, I am heartened by Tanehaus' following list of writers who found their genius late.

"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)."

I would be honored to be part of that list.  Perhaps my late turn to writing prevented me from blossoming into the next Normal Mailer.  But maybe it gifted me with a wealth of experiences to become the next Virginia Woolf.

The turmoil of my late teenage years and early 20s have left me with less prose but more memories than many writers my age.  I have walked in many shoes in many cities around the world.  With diligence, this straw can become gold.  Because, as Tanehaus closes, "Now, as then, the most meaningful 'fight' waged by literary artists is interior. Their principal adversary is not a noisy culture or inattentive readers. It is themselves."

That's a fight I can win, no matter what my age.

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