In the New York Times, Sam Tanenhaus ponders the notion that the best fiction is written by people (he mostly talks about men) under 40.
“Writers are not scholars but athletes, who grow beer bellies after 30,” as Updike (then well into his 30s) wrote in “Bech: A Book.” He was jesting, but only in part. Not every major fiction writer is a natural, but each begins with a storehouse of material and memories that often attenuate over time. Writers in their youth generally have more direct access to childhood, with its freshets of sensation and revelation. What comes later — technical refinement, command of the literary tradition, deeper understanding of the human condition — may yield different results but not always richer or more artful ones.
To which I respond: Patrick O’Brian, Mary Renault, Sigrid Undset, Daphne du Maurier (I like her short work better than her novels), Charles Dickens… I could go on.
The novelists I admire, the ones who write rich, plotted stories with a deep understanding of humankind, do their best work as they get older. A lot of them write historical novels. (Or, as Hilary Mantel might say, contemporary novels set in other times.) Their primary focus isn’t autobiographical navel-gazing, nor the flash and fiddle of pushing the form–no second-person present tense musings from the point of view of a tablespoon. They’re expanding their understanding, and ours, of the most fascinating subject of all: people. They play with culture and politics and love and war, the ebb and flow of society and civilisation. They look at people and the systems we create (and destroy).
The Times (not the NY but London) has an article by Sarah Dunant regarding the new Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. The writers she names are all at the top of their game, all in their fifties (except Simon Mawer, who is sixty-something). I’ve read and enjoyed most of them. (Thorpe and Mawer are now on my list.)
Novels by mature writers hold a mirror up to culture. Let the eager, dewy people play the finger-exercises of experimentation. Grown-ups are doing the real work. Grown-ups have the wit, wisdom and patience to get magisterial.
7 thoughts on “Novelists: how young is ‘young’?”
Found this post via Twitter! Monday mornings are so much nicer when they're full of book talk by smart people.
Some of the works Tanenhaus lists as being produced by writers in their youth are pretty magisterial, though (War and Peace, Moby Dick), and he also acknowledges writers who did their best work when older (Henry James and Virginia Woolf being my favorites of his list — I'd add George Eliot, who was in her early fifties when Middlemarch was published).
I will cheerfully admit that I may just be prickly about this because I'm only 28 now and started writing the historical novel I just published when I was 22. But I don't know if insisting that older writers produce better work than younger writers holds up any better than stating the opposite, and I definitely don't think that holding a mirror up to nature (or culture) is only the ambition of older writers.
Have you read any of the 20 under 40 stories in the New Yorker that prompted Tanenhaus's musings on age? I'm working my way through the ones in the magazine and have only really liked two so far — oddly enough, Jonathan Safran Foer's experimental piece, and ZZ Packer's historical fiction.
Katherine, welcome. I have a sample chapter of Alcestis on my Kindle waiting for me to find time to read it.
Consider my 'older writers are better' a statement for the purpose of discussion. After all, my first novel came out when I was 32, and I thought it was pretty damn good.
I find Moby Dick unbearable as opposed to magisterial. I find most New Yorker stories–the latest issue is in my TBR pile, along with the Economist and New Scientist–rubbish. Poorly conceived, badly written, precious, pretentious, and empty. They feel…frightened and insecure to me. But I admit freely that I simply don't understand the New Yorker's perspective when it comes to their selection.
So what novels do you think influenced Alcestis?
Fangirl moment: I've admired your writing since I read Slow River in college, on the recommendation of my favorite English prof who is also a huge sf fan — it was one of the books that made me start thinking seriously about writing sf/f. So that's a very nice thing to hear, and I hope you enjoy the sample chapter!
I understand — I think Tanenhaus's piece was also meant to be a discussion-starter, which is why I was so glad to see your discussion of it. I don't tend to like New Yorker stories much either, but I wanted to make an effort to read these so that I could bitch about them in an informed way, as opposed to my usual “I read a few pages of the story in the last issue and quit” way. I was surprised to like the JSF piece as much as I did.
As for Alcestis influences, novel-wise, I'd say Tepper's The Gate to Women’s Country, Willis's Passage and Doomsday Book, Margaret Atwood in general (but especially The Handmaid's Tale for this book), The Left Hand of Darkness, and To the Lighthouse. And non-novel-wise, “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.” How's that for a weird mix?
Sounds about right. For Slow River it was, well, everything I've ever read (and listened to, and watched–and cooked, and grown, and…), but couldn't have existed without William Boyd's Brazzaville Beach and Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family. Boyd's novel helped me understand fucking with tense and POV, and Ondaatje's memoir gave me an idea of how close and jewel-like personal memory could be in prose. And they're both great reads.
It couldn't, of course, have been written (or published) without the pioneers, some of whom I talk about here (scroll down to 'Thirty or Forty Excellent Books').
Katharine, I too am looking forward to Alcestis.
I've read about half the New Yorker fiction so far and pretty much hate it all :) I'm shocked at the general lack of story in these stories. I don't mind an accretion of small moments in fiction — I think it's often the small moments that produce the greatest consequences. But so many of these stories are just small. I'm immensely tired of sentence-level cleverness substituting for genuine emotional events.
But maybe I'm just old and grumpy :)
Nicola: your Things I Like list of books is making my TBR list ever-longer. Have you read Anne Carson's Sappho translations? That was another Alcestis influence. I can't remember if I've read Mary Bernard's or not but will look for them.
And Kelley, thank you! What I found appealing about the JSF story is that it's a collection of small moments that manages to do something bigger (or managed it for me, anyway). But I know what you mean and usually feel the same way.
What I don't get is why so many stories and books that are not engaging on an emotional level are so popular.
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