The publication of the New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40” list caused quite a stir in the literary world recently. Partly, this was because such a list, issued with such authority from such an authority, raises particular expectations. But it was also partly because of the emphasis on “young” writers. In fact, as we previously mentioned, one blog, Ward Six, was so fed up with the “Under 40” list that it offered its own list of writers over 80.
But in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Sam Tanenhaus takes a different perspective, pointing out that “the emphasis on futurity misses an essential truth about fiction writers: They often compose their best and most lasting work when they are young”:
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. […]
IT may well be that the writers singled out by The New Yorker have already written lasting works. But it is a mistake to assume that because they are young — at least according to our culture’s ever expanding notion of youth, when 40, or even 50, is “the new 30” — they must be poised midway up Parnassus, with higher achievements to come. The trouble, perhaps, is that this definition of “young writer,” which owes less to literary considerations than to the intersecting categories of sociology and marketing, muddies our understanding of how truly original, enduring fiction comes to be written. Worse, it threatens to infantilize our writers, reducing them to the condition of permanent apprentices who grind steadily toward “maturity” as they prepare to write their “breakthrough” books.