20 Under 40 Angst

Last week The New Yorker announced its “20 under 40” list of the most promising American fiction writers under the age of 40, and the only people who seem to be happy are the 20 people who made it onto the list and their agents. The unhappiest folks are probably the writers who were short-listed but didn’t make the final cut. And then the writers under 40 who weren’t even considered. And then maybe the writers—Colson Whitehead is most often mentioned in this regard, although to judge from his prolific “tweeting” he’s taking the blow pretty much in stride—who didn’t make the New Yorker’s last list in 1999 but are just over the age cut-off this time.

And then there’s the rest of us who weren’t in the running in any way, shape, or form, and still feel a little miserable about the whole thing.

Living so far removed from the literary nerve center that is New York, I was blissfully unaware of “the list” and would have remained so until I got my own issue of The New Yorker summer fiction issue, had I not attended a literary event in New York in May (the first such event of my life), where the “list” was the subject of somewhat anxious discussion among the beautiful literary people in attendance (I’m not being sarcastic here; really, everyone was just gorgeous). It didn’t help that the New York Times then announced the list by proclaiming in its headline, not “20 Young Writers Honored for Great Fiction,” but “20 Young Writers Earn the Envy of Many Others.” This was followed by “How Old Can a ‘Young Writer’ Be?” which argues that most writers peak while they’re young, and that far from showing future promise, the people on the list may have already done their best work and be on their way out. One writer acquaintance of mine, still in her 30s, declared, “This makes me want to stop writing.” To judge by the tweets and blogs and comments I’ve seen over the past week, this sense of deflation, all somehow connected to the 20 under 40 list, is pretty widespread.

I’m not immune to it either. When the list came out, I posted a tweet to the effect that while I was excited to see the 20 under 40 issue, the list also made me want to slit my wrists. One friend, believing I might actually be disappointed to not have made the list, sent me a link to a piece at The Awl (theawl.com) called “Ten Affirmations for Fiction Writers for Today,” which includes a few bromides like “No one took anything away from you” and “You look really pretty today!” and some schadenfreude-y stuff like “Some of the people on that list are still poor.” (I should feel better because a hard-working, talented fellow writer is poor?) But I wasn’t disappointed to not make the list—(a) I’m well over 40, and (b) I’ve yet to publish my first book. As I explained to my friend, it was just that it was one of those things that “made me realize I was well past the halfway mark of my three-score and ten and had fuck-all to show for it.” Yeah, not disappointment. Something better: despair!

But then I remembered “Late Bloomers,” the wonderful, revelatory piece by the incomparable Malcolm Gladwell that appeared in The New Yorker in the fall of 2008. (How’s that for some lovely irony? The instrument of despair has already dispensed the cure!) In another nice layer of irony, it was the writer Yiyun Li, one of The New Yorker’s honored 20, who first brought the article to my attention (I’d managed to sneak into a graduate seminar of hers at UC Davis that fall even though I was no longer a student there).

Gladwell’s piece takes on this notion that equates genius with precocity and basically unravels it, looking at research on creativity and comparing the artistic processes and development of prodigies (Picasso, Jonathan Safran Foer) and late bloomers (Cezanne, Ben Fountain). Turns out that Cezanne did his best work in his 60s, not because he wasn’t discovered till late, but because he just wasn’t that good until he was older! Honestly, the article should be required reading for any artist over 35 who’s still finding his or her way. It’s just hugely encouraging.

And now that I’ve administered myself that booster shot, I can do two things: I can sit down and enjoy The New Yorker summer fiction issue, which includes stories by 8 of the 20 writers. And I can go back to my job, which is finishing that first, slow-to-bloom book.

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