Older and Wiser

August 4, 2011 | 5 books mentioned 19 4 min read

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’s20 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)?

coverOf 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.

coverI 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

is the author of numerous articles and essays and of four novels. Her latest, The Taste of Salt, will be published in September. You can find out more about her work at her website www.marthasouthgate.com.


  1. It’s no different in the visual arts. Maybe even worse, as the age requirements are often lower. My guess is that money is the main driver, in the sense that the younger you are, the longer you will (they hope) be making money for your publisher/gallery/movie studio. Of course the arts also rely on a certain amount of glamor and if you cannot be easily marketed, off to the sidelines with you. Depressing, but true.

  2. Hear, hear.

    And in some cases, us oldsters are just getting started in the book publishing biz. I’ve been writing and publishing stories, articles, and essays for a couple of decades now, and have been putting much of my time and effort into helping younger writers, my students, understand more about their own work. It isn’t until just now, when I am over 50, that I have been able to place my first book-length manuscript. The Temple of Air is coming out in September by an upstart small press, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. A long haul to get here, but here nonetheless. Older, not necessarily wiser, but more practiced and well-read and so grateful to be able to do this work that I love. Oh, and by the way, I ran my first half-marathon the year I turned 50, too. I guess it just takes me longer than most folks.

  3. I must say, I patently disagree, though yes, I am a whippersnapper. This culture may be youth obsessed, but it’s a culture that has royally screwed its youth over. A college degree costs ten times as much as it cost our parents and comes with half the rewards; is it so bad that young writers receive a lot of love? I also agree that older writers who have earned it should reap the benefits of respect later on, but in the grand scheme of things, outside the publishing world young people don’t have it any easier than anybody else.

  4. Awards, lists, grants, and publications with age limits really bother me. I’m just not sure why I’m supposed to care how old an author is, or why a 30-year-old debut novelist is somehow more valuable or important than a 50-year-old debut novelist. The age cut-off rationale that I’ve heard most frequently is that it’s about giving recognition and support to authors who aren’t very established yet; fine, but if that’s the case, I’d be way more interested in, say, a “20 who’ve published no more than three books” list than a “20 under 40” list.

  5. Thank you, Martha. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Add Don Delillo to your list of writers who wrote a few books before hitting his stride.

    In addition to recognition for more experienced, mature writers, I have a special place in my heart for late bloomers, i.e. writers who’ve actually debuted post-40 – Penelope Fitzgerald, Walker Percy, William Gay, Harriet Doerr, George Eliot (she may have been 39, but still), et alia. There’s usually a rich and interesting story behind the late bloomer’s creative trajectory.

  6. Please add Alan Hollinghurst to your list of writers who only get better as they age and write more. His latest, “The Stranger’s Child”, is his best yet and he won the Booker with his fourth.

  7. Interesting point of view. I can relate as I am about to celebrate a birthday with a big number. But this past week I watched Transcendent Man, the documentary about Ray Kurzweil, because my son urged me to. What I got from it is that change is happening faster and faster, exponentially actually, especially in the technological spheres. I think this is affecting many things in our society and giving the impression that the culture is youth oriented.

    For the past several years I have been studying the literature of the world since 1940, reading 20 to 30 books from each year. The rate of change in literature begins to speed up in the mid 1950s, but even then it was glacial compared to now.

    My blog is called Keep the Wisdom for a reason. I do think that in times of rapid technological change, wisdom is more valuable than ever. But try telling that to the generations behind you. Worst of all, try telling that to the marketing department of any business, including publishing.

    Glad to meet you. I will check out your novels. Best to you.

  8. Yes, you do in fact sound bitter. Your whining tone more than your arguments was the thing I will remember from reading this.

  9. A word to Nate Knapp to say that I completely see your point about the world being in bad shape for all younger people, writers and non-writers– i have 2 kids myself and i often think about this. I am not arguing for the elimination of special consideration or awards limited to younger writers; the good ones do deserve encouragement. I am simply raising the notion that the apparatus that drives these things casts a wider net within the literary fiction world. For Sonya, yes, the other downside of youth- limited awards is that it cuts out the late bloomer. Another argument for more equitable distribution and recognition.

  10. I’m sort of on the brink of the in-between area, turning 30 in less than two months. Not quite a late-bloomer, but getting to “old” to be a wonder kid.

    Not that I’ve published anything. Yet.

  11. Youth obsession, ageism. I actually remember being young- I thought older people were pretty irrelevant. I was an idiot. It’s so satisfying when the arrogance and ignorance of youth mellows into the humility and experience of middle age. It’s a known fact that very few young people have anything interesting to say, and that there are many many exceptions as well (think Tea Obrecht). But Martin Amis’s first novel? Many other writers have already been mentioned, writers who, which makes sense, got better as they got older, better the longer they practiced their craft. Regardless of the literary world, like so many other communities, always looking for the next hot thing, I’m very happy to have my first book come out at 42.

    This was an honest essay. Thanks, Martha Southgate.

  12. PS- The readings and panels for the 2012 AWP conference have been announced and I wanted to note the following:

    “4 Over 40.

    Daniel Libman, Zoe Zolbrod, Chris Fink, Goldie Goldbloom, Francesca Abbate
    You won’t see their work in any Under 40 anthologies because these diverse writers of fiction and poetry all got their first books published after their 40th birthdays. Daniel Libman, Chris Fink, Francesca Abbate, Goldie Goldbloom, and Zoe Zolbrod will discusses in a funny, frank and helpful way how writers without their first book can live in a world saturated with age bias, and also offer useful tips on how to get the first book sold even after the milestone of 40 has come and gone.”

    You’re not alone, Martha!

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