Is 40 the New 30 for American Writers?

In American culture these days youth, as they say, rules. We all know that, and evidence for this truism exists in a lot of places you’d expect – comic books furnishing plots and characters for blockbuster movies and Broadway shows, Baby Boomers starting to collect Social Security even as they wonder if they’re really grown-ups yet. 

The average age at first marriage has risen to 26.5 for women and 28.4 for men and so has the parents’ age upon arrival of the first child in the household.  And there are the less obvious examples. What happened, for example, to grandmotherly grandmothers? Sure, technically speaking, grandmothers exist, but not like those of my grandmother’s day – short, heavy,white-haired women in dresses with wrinkles and brown spots, devoted to their grandchildren and making no pretense of physical attractiveness.  And what’s this thing with fathers in their 40s wearing the same khaki shorts, sneakers, T-shirts, and baseball hats as their seven-year-old sons?

Image of Father and Son

Like son, like father

These thoughts came to mind when I read that the New Yorker has just published its collection of short stories by young authors, 20 Under 40, as a book. When the New Yorker ran these stories last summer in the magazine, I dutifully read them and looked over the list of writers. The editors described their selection principles this way:

Did we want to choose the writers who had already proved themselves or those whom we expected to excel in years to come? A good list, we came to think, should include both.

Most of the 20 under 40 I’d heard of, but what was striking was how few of the New Yorker crew had published a work that I, a faithful reader of book reviews, could name. Yes, there were a couple: Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. Nicole Krauss was just about to come out with her well-reviewed novel Great House. These 20 were supposed to be la creme de la creative writing schools, but few, as far as I could see, had produced anything like a breakhtrough work.

Photo of Nicole Krauss

Nicole Krauss

These thoughts drove me to a little quick Internet research. I had the notion that in previous eras – say, post World War II American wriitng – authors produced that breakthrough book earlier in the game. To test this hypothesis, I compiled a list of important American novels with the age of the author next to work. (I simply lifted the top 10 American novels selected by experts for a PBS TV show and added five of my own favorites they’d overlooked it.) Here it is:

The Adventures of Augie March (1953) by Saul Bellow (age 38)

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) by Mark Twain (50)

Catch-22 (1961) by Joseph Heller (38)

The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J.D. Salinger (32)

The Grapes of Wrath (1939) by John Steinbeck (37)

The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald (29)

Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison (38)

Moby-Dick (1851) by Herman Melville (32)

The Scarlet Letter (1850) by Nathaniel Hawthorne (46)

To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee (34)

On the Road (written 1951; published 1957) by Jack Kerouac (29 at writing)


Photo of John Updike

The late John Updike at 23.

Rabbit Run

(1960) by John Updike (28)

The Sun Also Rises (1926) by Ernest Hemingway (27)

Goodbye Columbus (1959) by Philip Roth (26)

In Cold Blood (1966) by Truman Capote (42)

For this group of earlier-era American authors the media age of the big breakthrough book is 33. But where are the breakthroughs for the 20 Under 40 crowd?

Tune in Thursday for part 2 of this post for a few theories on the causes of this age creep and the resultant lack of Great American Novels. (to be continued)

4 Responses to Is 40 the New 30 for American Writers?

  1. You mention Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” (published when the author was 25), but he was even younger (23) when he published “This Side of Paradise.” Another candidate for your list: “Williwaw,” the first novel by Gore Vidal (he was 19 when it was published). Or maybe these books don’t count as breakthrough works, in your view? (I think they do, since they helped propel their authors to fame.) I’d be interested to hear your thoughts!

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