“Covers is dedicated to the appreciation of brilliant book cover design.” – Click on the covers to see comments that people have left.
The July/August 2011 issue of Poets & Writers contains an interesting nugget from William Giraldi, author of the recently published novel Busy Monsters, his first. He says, “There’s obscene pressure on writers to be the next hot young thing…But let’s be honest: Most hot young things have nothing of value to say.” Pretty tough words for a 36-year-old. Not to imply any judgment of his novel one way or the other — I have not read it and do not know him — but by my lights, he’s still something of a hot young thing himself. His comment carries a special irony within this particular issue of Poets & Writers. Not only the cover story but also two other lengthy articles are about some aspect of debut fiction. In the grants and awards section, there are no fewer than six announcements for awards, fellowships, or professorships that are only available either to writers making their debut or writers under 35 or 40. Despite Giraldi’s comforting words, this issue of the magazine put me over the edge. “Damn it,” I thought. “Why do the kids get so much of the good stuff?”
I’m picking on Poets & Writers here but, as Giraldi notes, it is simply going along with the crowd. From the National Book Association’s “5 Under 35” to The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” to the Bard Fiction Prize (under 40) to the New York Public Library’s Young Lions award (under 35) and on and on, the publishing and awards-giving biz has decided, along with the apparatus that promotes authors and their work (magazines, newspapers, websites, etc.) that the kids are all right. But where does that leave us oldsters (by which I mean those of us on the far side of 40)?
Of course, there are non-age-restricted prizes such as the Guggenheim, the NEA, and others open to mid-career, middle-aged writers. These awards all serve an important purpose — and they are all ferociously competitive. Do you know how many Guggenheim fellows there were in fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry last year? Twenty-six, out of literally thousands of applicants. And they weren’t all over 40. Yes, sometimes a Jaimy Gordon or Julia Glass will squeak through to the big time with an unexpected major prize (the National Book Award in both their cases). But once you pass 40, if you’re not part of a small, largely white, male, extremely-talented-but-still coterie (you know who you are, Eugenides, Franzen, and Chabon), that’s rare.
I realize this sounds bitter. And I have no business being bitter. I am a 50-year-old African-American woman whose fourth novel arriving in stores now. My work has always been published by major houses. Given the current climate in the book business, I am well aware that this is close to a miracle, especially for someone whose novels, though well-regarded, have sold modestly. I’ve enjoyed a couple of prestigious fellowships and won some prizes; when I look at it objectively, I know I’ve got it good – far better than many.
But this isn’t just about me (well it is partly, but not entirely). It’s about the extraordinary and damaging degree to which youth gets exalted in the status game of publishing and publicity. Not to take anything away from the many talented folks under 40, but where are the non-Pulitzer/National Book Award-level prizes for those of us who’ve been in there pitching for a while? Where’s The New Yorker’s “20 Over 40?”
By the time you get to your third, fourth, fifth major piece of fiction or non-fiction, ideally, you’ve settled into an expansion and deepening of your skills and talents as a writer. Even if you start late (say, at the ripe old age of 36), with any luck, your later novels will be better than your first. Yes, there are those who write only one book, or whose first book is their best. (Ralph Ellison, anyone?) And there are those who don’t, in fact, progress. But if you hang in there and read and push yourself, odds are that your later books will achieve a richness and nuance that your first one can’t. It is true that sometimes, past a certain point, it becomes a game of diminishing returns artistically (that’s another essay), but for many writers, mid-career is when they produce their best work. Off the top of my head: Beloved is Toni Morrison’s fifth novel. The Hours is Michael Cunningham’s third (fourth, if you count his disavowed first novel, Golden States). The Remains of the Day is Kazuo Ishiguro’s third novel. The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third. Even the above-named contemporary big three — Eugenides, Franzen, and Chabon — hit their stride after writing one, two, even three novels. For my part, when I look back at my own fiction, I can see how my work has grown stronger and cleaner (for a small example, I used the word “weird” WAY too much in my first book.)
As Giraldi notes and as we all know, we live in a youth-obsessed culture. And really, is there any reason publishing should be different? I say yes, emphatically. Part of the reason we write is to consider as many facets of the human condition as possible. And the longer you live, the more of that darn thing you will find yourself confronted with.
So God bless the whippersnappers. I wish the best of them the best of luck. But the next time some wealthy patron of literature wants to endow a chair or offer a grant or a fellowship, or the next time a literary magazine wants to bestow a mantle, here’s hoping the requirements will be: “Applicants must be over 40 and have published at least one book.”
Image credit: Mickey van der Stap/Flickr
So, maybe you’re curious about what books people are reading right now. I’ll start with new fiction. There’s a lot of interesting new books out there right now. The book that everyone is talking about remains The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. Lethem has recently been interviewed in periodicals ranging from Entertainment Weekly to the Paris Review, and the book is the current pick for countless book clubs. Despite the hype, this book is a worthy read, and you’ll have something to talk about at cocktail parties. In the category of science fiction for those who don’t typically read science fiction comes Quicksilver, the first book in a new series by Neal Stephenson. The book has been out for a week and is already flying off the shelves, most likely to the very same folks who are always telling me how much they love Stephenson’s previous novels, especially Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. Meanwhile, Zoe Heller is nearing breakthrough status with her second novel What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal, which is about a teacher who carries on an affair with her fifteen year old student. It sounds trashy, but from what I hear it turns out to be a nuanced and moving character study. It’s been short-listed for the Booker Prize and is beginning to sell accordingly. Also short-listed and selling incredibly well in England is Brick Lane by Monica Ali. Following in the footsteps of fellow young Londoner Zadie Smith, Ali’s debut novel is another unsparing look at multi-cultural London. Finally, another debut, this one is a cleverly wrought time traveling romance by Audrey Niffenegger titled, appropriately, The Time Traveler’s Wife. So there you go. A few things to read this fall. Stayed tuned for the next installment: new non-fiction.
We’ve written about how difficult it can be to find a proper title for a work-in-progress. Lately, however, we’ve started to notice a certain trend that may make things easier on the budding novelist. Consider the following novels, all published within the last couple years: The Inheritance of Loss; The History of Love; The Story of Forgetting; The God of Small Things; and The Secret of Lost Things.Certainly there’s some precedent for titling a work with the prepositional construction “The Blank of Blank.” (The Wings of the Dove, The Heart of the Matter, and The Nightmares’ forgotten R&B classic “The Horrors of the Black Museum…” come to mind, and and that’s just off the top of our heads.) Indeed, pairing a wispy abstraction with something surprisingly concrete can be a recipe for piquancy: Think of The Possibility of an Island or The House of Mirth.The innovation represented by the recent spate of prepositional titles is the pairing of two abstractions. A writer willing to settle for the tried-and-true might consider recombining some of the nouns above to create a title for her manuscript, such as The Secret of God, The Lost Things of Small Things, or The Inheritance of History. But for the truly ambitious, may we suggest the following approach: roll some virtual dice, take the corresponding abstract nouns from Column A and Column B, insert a “the” (or two) and an “of,” and you’re off to the races!Column A:1. Earnestness2. Persistence3. Irritability4. Malodorousness5. Malice6. WhimsyColumn B:1. Splendor2. Etiquette3. Particle Physics4. Numismatism5. Large Things6. Medium Things