Post-40 Bloomers: “Late” According to Whom?

September 26, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 45 3 min read

Here at The Millions we’re pleased to launch a new monthly feature, “Post-40 Bloomers,” which will highlight authors – living and deceased, new-on-the-scene and now long-established – whose first books debuted when they were 40 or older. In this column we will review recent debuts, look broadly at the legacy of later-blooming authors, present author interviews, ruminate essayistically on an author’s life and work, and/or all of the above at once. In the spirit of Martha Southgate’s recent post here, “Older and Wiser,” we offer not so much an answer as a small contribution, a counterbalance, to Southgate’s question: “Why do the kids get so much of the good stuff?” Herewith (I personally hope) is a bit o’ good stuff for 40 and over writers.

Fortunately, I don’t feel I have to make a detailed or impassioned argument here for the value of this column. Others have done so recently, and eloquently, in response to the New Yorker’s publication last summer of the “20 Under 40” list – young writers whom the editors believe “are, or will be, key to their generation” and whose writing exhibited “a palpable sense of ambition” – and the correlating anthology of stories. I refer you in particular to Matthew Huntes review of the anthology in The Observer, and to Joe Schuster’s post at Work-in-Progress. Both Hunte and Schuster (along with Southgate) provide terrific counterexamples to the prodigy/precocity paradigm and remind us that slow, later, and older produces as great if not greater literary work than fast, early, and young. In other words, by focusing too much on youth when bestowing awards and recognition, we miss out – we readers and we writers and we critics, that is. We generate cultural blind spots, and we even have the power to thwart possibilities for alternative creative paths by influencing market and career viability in favor of the young.

In his essay “Late Bloomers,” published (ironically) in the New Yorker in 2008, Malcolm Gladwell makes the useful distinction between late bloomers, late starters, and late-discovereds. You’ll likely see a mix of these appearing in this column, but my personal curatorial bias is toward the late starters. Gladwell writes mostly about artists who require a long, reiterative, “experimental” approach to their work – artists (Cezanne is his primary example) who might begin work on a novel or a painting at a relatively young age but need 10, 15, 20 years to fully develop and execute their vision, to attain a level of noteworthy excellence. My bias toward late starters – people who have lived a whole life, or two, or three before seriously devoting themselves to write a book – relates to the collision of life and art; I’m interested in writers who perhaps had the inkling, or the deep desire, to write, to pursue a creative life, for a long time, but for myriad reasons were impeded – internally, externally, a combination of the two. I am excited and inspired by individuals from whom a determined self-reinvention – a digging in, a deep breath, an about face or leap off a cliff – has been required at some point in order to pursue the vocation that has called from within but for which there has been little native tailwind.

Perhaps it is clear by now that this was very much my own experience.

But then again, the distinction is ultimately artificial: is the individual who, say, has a full-time job as a bookkeeper and who scribbles at a novel, or at notes for he-knows-not-what, sporadically, for 20 years, before something resembling an “a-ha” moment strikes him and suddenly the notes come pouring out in waves and consistently and then he finds he’s really writing it – the background of his life has transitioned to the foreground – is this individual a late bloomer or a late starter? Perhaps it’s the timing of that transition moment that I’m interested in, the point at which someone not only puts both feet into the writer’s boots but in fact begins to walk – shakily, but unmistakably – on a literary path. It’s the point where “may” morphs into “must,” where the obstacles begin to fade in power and importance.

I myself am hesitant to use the word “late” (or “older,” for that matter) in reference to writers over 40, which is why the column is not called “Late Bloomers.” Late relative to what and according to whose definition of early or on-time?

coverWriters we plan to feature include, tentatively, Penelope Fitzgerald, Daniel Orozco, Isak Dinesen, George Eliot, William Gay, Walker Percy, Helen DeWitt, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, and Harriet Doerr. And we’ll kick off later this month with Yvvette Edwards, whose debut novel A Cupboard Full of Coats was longlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize. There are more in the works, so worry not if your favorite late-bloomer/late-starter is not mentioned above.

Thanks in advance for reading. May we all bloom in good time.

 

Image credit: George Eliot via Wikipedia

is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016.  She is founding editor of Bloom and teaches fiction writing at Skidmore College.  Learn more about Sonya here.

45 comments:

  1. Two words: Norman Rush.

    Born 1933. Had a life as a book dealer and then a Peace Corps director in Africa before publishing his first story in The New Yorker in 1978, in his mid-40s. First book, Whites, a model short-story collection, arrives in 1986, at the age of 53; it becomes a Pulitzer finalist. First novel, Mating, follows in 1991, when he is pushing 60. It wins the National Book Award, and it’s a totally remarkable reading experience. Followed by an impressive follow-up, Mortals in 2003. Look at those dates and I think it tells the story: the man is an endless polisher and perfectionist, and it pays off.

  2. I’m excited, and encouraged, to read about the launch of this new column. As a (relatively) new forty-something year old writer, I’m eager to read about others who have also started writing later, whoops, I mean, at a more mature stage of life.

  3. What a great idea this is!

    I published my first short story at 41, then went back to school for an MA in creative writing, where I was the oldest person in my cohort by 15 years. My current ambition is to complete my first book before 50. I admire the young and gifted writers out there, but I’ve stopped wishing I could have been one of them. My writing just wasn’t that good in my 20s and 30s. I was one of those people who needed to have a life before I started writing seriously and well.

    Thank you, Sonya Chung and The Millions! Can’t wait to read more.

  4. Wow. I knew “Older and Wiser” was flying around and a lot of people liked it, but I couldn’t be more thrilled to see The Millions actually taking some action in response. Thanks so much. A couple of things: one: I believe James Hannaham, the author of a really terrific novel called “God Says No” was 40 when it was published (hope he doesn’t mind me divulging his age). Also, any writer of any age who has had more than one book published and lives outside New England should check out the Grub Street Novel prize. Details can be found at http://www.grubstreet.org

  5. Great idea. Walker Percy is a longtime favorite of mine. Norman McLean is another late bloomer who comes to mind. You might also keep an eye on Korrektiv Press. They published my first (and hopefully not last) book, House of Words, last year when I was forty-five; and they are set to publish a novel by Brian Jobe, another first-time author in his md-forties.

  6. Love this. I believe Willa Cather was over 40 when her first novel was published- so there’s one more to the list. I commented on Martha Southgate’s great piece and love that The Millions continues on with this issue/concept. I frankly somewhat embrace being a middle aged curmudgeon, who has little interest – for the most part, of course there are MANY exceptions- of the work of 20 somethings. In Freedom, there is a wonderful, hilarious riff by Patty on her disdain for youth culture. Anyway, looking forward to this column!

  7. From what sometimes feels like the edge of the time horizon (60), I send applause. I look forward to this discussion & hope it will include struggles as well as successes.

  8. I love this! My first short story was published October 2010 when I was 42 and I have two books coming out in May and June 2012. Before that, I was raising five kids and writing notes on the back of diapers but I didn’t feel the overwhelming need to be published when I was younger. Now I can appreciate the ride. ;)

  9. We’re thrilled that everyone’s excited about this feature; we have lots of good stuff on the way.

    Martha: Believe it or not, Sonya started working on this column before we ran your piece, but your very compelling essay helped confirm for us that we were on the right track. It’s always interesting to discover these shared ideas floating around in the ether.

  10. Yes! I love this idea. I am a twenty-something writer myself, but I am far more interested in learning from late-starters than the overly celebrated young and fast.
    Thank you!

  11. I love this idea! Especially the focus on self-reinvention.

    One caveat — I’ve been a fan of Daniel Orozco’s for some time but wouldn’t call him a post-40s bloomer. His story Orientation was in Best American Short Stories in 1995, when he must have been in his young/mid 30s. He didn’t have a book out until this year, but he’s certainly been on the literary scene, and publishing, for a long while.

  12. Hooray, what a brilliant post. I can now feel confident to take my steps of faith into the writing world. I do not want to take anything away from young authors, because I read and admire their work. However, I was beginning to feel that I was having a midlife crisis and my ambitions would create and flow in my head. Thank you for making me know that it is possible!

  13. Yes yes yes. In a culture where true adulthood is often delayed until one’s 30s, that it takes until one’s 40s to have actually lived and learned enough to have something worthwhile to say makes a whole lot of sense. Consider Isak Dinesen and Walker Percy and Penelope Fitzgerald and Norman Rush as comprising a vanguard; my money’s on a healthy number of older-and-wisers making a splash in coming years.

    Of course, there’s self-interest at play in my opinion. May we all bloom in good time, indeed!

  14. I was 42 when I sent the first three chapters of a novel I had written, “The 41st Sermon” to Walker Percy. Shortly after I received his handwritten response on my cover letter: “Randy: It reads well — I’d be glad to look at rest, but must tell you I’ve had to give up finding agent or publisher for unpublished writers — I’d be doing nothing else. Everybody in South is writing a novel – Best, W.P.” I sent the MS to him and waited and waited and then in May the following year woke up one morning to read his obituary in the paper. I’d be happy to send any Percy fan interested in seeing a scan of the note an email. I’ve entered the world of epublishing so The 41st Sermon is now live on Smashwords and soon will be on Amazon.com My email address is [email protected]

  15. This is a wonderful essay. So many writers in low-residency MFA programs (like VCFA, where I teach) qualify as “late-bloomers” of one sort or another, and they would all benefit from your words here, Sonya.

  16. I’m really looking forward to this column! Thank you for creating it. Just a few weeks ago I was lamenting that I’m 45 and a late bloomer, to which my friend looked me in the eye and declared: “You’re blooming.” Now I walk around thinking, “I’m blooming, I’m blooming!” :)

  17. Love this. And the comment about Norman Rush, who holds a place near Tolstoy in my heart. And I’m signing up for updates, hoping to find “new” authors to read.

  18. well, thanks for that anyway (not saying “late”). i’m 46 and the reason i’m turning to writing now is because i was busy doing other things — starting and running multiple businesses, raising a family, and other adventures. i don’t feel late. if i have enough time, i’ll eventually get around to learning how to play the drums. i won’t be “late”. you can’t do everything at once. you’ve only got so many hours in the day.

  19. In a world where youth is celebrated, it is important to highlight the depth and wisdom that accumulates with years of life experience.

    Thank you for starting this series. I look forward to reading it.

  20. Thanks for this column. I just published my first collection, at 41, and sometimes feel almost sheepish about it. As if I missed my true wave. (Which never could have happened for me at 30 — it took me ten years to write this book for a reason. For me, it was a “digging in, a deep breath, and a leap off the cliff” all at various times.) I’ve never felt this way before, but now, when talking to people, I sometimes feel reluctant to mention my age — as if (and I know this is absurd) — it will somehow diminish the work, or mark me as “not-the-next-bit-thing.” Definitely not a 20-under-40. I know this column will help.

  21. I was nearing 50 when I started writing poetry and have just finished my 3rd collection. I find the gift of starting later is that with different career aspirations I can just enjoy the process of writing and find satisfaction in having people tell me that my work has been important to them–maybe a “reward” rather than an “Award.”

  22. My first book was published this past July. I am 42. I’m strangely grateful that success didn’t find me sooner; I don’t think I was fully formed in my 20s. Of course I’m not now, either — but I am more in command of my powers and more aware of my weaknesses. I love this salient bit of verse from Emily Dickinson:

    I shall keep singing!
    Birds will pass me
    On their way to Yellower Climes —
    Each — with a Robin’s expectation —
    I — with my Redbreast —
    And my Rhymes —

    Late — when I take my place in summer —
    But — I shall bring a fuller tune —
    Vespers — are sweeter than Matins — Signor —
    Morning — only the seed of Noon —

  23. This was pure oxygen to me – how did you know my life?! I’ve been scribbling in notebooks since childhood, something kicked in about the age of 50, another engine fired up 2 years ago, and this past spring, at the age of 59, I realized the dream: my first poetry chapbook published. Second manuscript in the works, as is a third. Thank you so much.

  24. Thrilled! I’ve found a home for my writing self. Working with an editor on a memoir whose current working title (I’ve had over 50) is Stumbling Toward Elderhood.

    A million thanks.

  25. I started writing in my late thirties and won’t have a published book until I’m 40. I don’t see this as late. Of course I would love to have written my novel sooner, but I just wasn’t ready. The book was in my head since I was 17, but I wasn’t ready for many reason to write it any sooner. I needed the reflection and life experience to write the best work possible.
    Forty isn’t as old as it was when I was 20 anyway. :)

  26. Marvelous, I feel completely vindicated having started writing fiction at age 60!
    Thanks so much.
    Johanna van Zanten

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *