Late-Blooming Writers: A Quiz

In Tuesday’s post I posed the question of why the younger generation of American writers, particularly the New Yorker’s carefully selected talent pool of 20 writers under age 40, have not yet produced the breakthrough novels that earlier generations had at the same point in their writing careers.

I have no good answer to this weighty question, only a few speculative lines for further inquiry.

A Nation of Peter Pans?

For complex reasons writers, like the rest of their demographic peers, seem to be maturing later nowadays. In 1983 the pop psychologist Dan Kiley first spotted this phenomenon at the heart of the Boomers when he published a book whose title says it all: The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up. Kiley focused on a disfunctional type that he saw as endemic to modern life, but the Romans had a word for this kind of guy - the puer aeternus or eternal boy. As the Wikipedia editors nicely put it:

The puer typically leads a provisional life, due to the fear of being caught in a situation from which it might not be possible to escape. He covets independence and freedom, chafes at boundaries and limits, and tends to find any restriction intolerable.

Photo of Seth Rogin

Seth Rogin, another version of Puer Aeternus.

Think the slacker schlub that Seth Rogin plays so well in Judd Apatow comedies, the sort who’s still living in his parents’ basement as 30 approaches. I hesitate to say how much of this type governs the attitudes of 20- and 30-something novelists, but then, of course, everything I’m writing in this post is from the point of view of the opposite type, the senex. In Jungian psychology, I am the senex, the old man under the sway of the god Apollo, who stands for the “disciplined, controlled, responsible, rational, ordered.” (Ah youth, I once had a touch of the Dionsyian in me.)

A Generation on the Verge of Greatness

Another way of looking at the question: perhaps many of the New Yorker’s chosens are on the verge of a breakthrough work. The New Yorker editors proudly cite the big successes from 1999, the last time they did their hot-new-writers thing: the late David Foster Wallace, Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen. Under this theory, if the 20s Under 40 were visual artists, you’d want to go out and buy their works now, while the artists are still relatively unknown and their works cheap. This experiment on forecasting literary greatness should play itself out within 10 years.

The Decline of the High Lit Tradition

An alternative possibility: something has changed in our literary culture that makes the mass, zeitgeist-grabbing masterpiece far less likely than in, say, 1959. Perhaps our culture has splintered into so many niches upon nicihes – sci-fi, fantasy, young adult, vampire, steampunk – that breakthrough works in the Old High Lit Tradition just can’t break through the buzz machine of the genre-obsessed. Or perhaps our mores have become so tolerant of diversity that a shocker of a novelist like a young Philip Roth gets lost in the stream of ever-louder, ever more outlawish garage bands and hip-hop wannabes with street cred.

Well, that’s quite enough speculative profundity for one post. I’m curious as to what you think about this. What are the masterpieces of the under-40 crowd of writers?

If you doubt my basic thesis, though, give yourself this little test: try to name one work by any of the New Yorker 20 Under 40. You get 3 points for every title you can recall, 2 points for each of the 20 you’ve actually read, and 1 point for every author you’ve heard of.

Photos of Tea Obreht and The Tiger Wife

Tea Obreht, who graduated from Cornell in 2009, and her novel.

Here’s the parade as presented by the New Yorker’s editors:

….the lyrical realism of Nell Freudenberger, Philipp Meyer, C. E. Morgan, and Salvatore Scibona; the satirical comedy of Joshua Ferris and Gary Shteyngart; and the genre-bending tales of Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, and Téa Obreht. David Bezmozgis and Dinaw Mengestu paint clear-eyed portraits of immigration and identity; Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, ZZ Packer, and Wells Tower offer idiosyncratic, voice-driven narratives. Then, there are the haunting sociopolitical stories of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Daniel Alarcón, and Yiyun Li, and the metaphysical fantasies of Chris Adrian, Rivka Galchen, and Karen Russell.


0-15 – You are Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader, generally clueless, that is, about this batch of baby literati.

16-30 – You’ve been reading your back issues of the New Yorker, a past-time that is its own reward.

30-44 – You live in a town with a first-rate public library and that’s prize enough.

45-60 – Congratulations. You win an Edmund Wilson Fellowship to the New School for night-study classes in the Vanished Art of High Literary Criticism.

60 and Up – The New Yorker wants you! The position of fiction editor will come open some day, and they’ll put you on staff writing “A Talk of the Town” piece every third year till the incumbemt departs.

5 Responses to Late-Blooming Writers: A Quiz

  1. Caroline Altman Smith Apr 22, 2011 at 11:57 am

    Well, I was going to add Arundhati Roy to the list, but Wikipedia tells me she is now 50 (although only 36 when she wrote “The God of Small Things,” which makes my suggested list of published-before-40 masterpieces). Not an original suggestion, but Zadie Smith is still only 36, and already has White Teeth and On Beauty under her belt. Maybe those ladies appeared on earlier NYer lists. Speaking of the legendary 1999 list, did you see Franzen’s tribute to David Foster Wallace in a recent NYer issue? Pretty wild!

    • Interesting points you raise, Caroline. Zadie Smith should absolutely be on any NYer 20 Under 40 list. Not sure why she didn’t make this one. Maybe too many breakthrough books already.

      And yes I did read the Jonathan Franzen piece about DFW. I haven’t read that much of DFW, but he’s become very much the in vogue writer both before and after his death. The two philosophy profs who wrote a heavyweight piece of nonfiction our book club read recently, “All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age,” begin with DFW and Elizabeth Gilbert before they get round to the likes of Homer, Dante, and Melville.

  2. I’m going for the New Yorker post, Rasoir. At 73 I should make it, I’m sure. Every 3 years? Just have to hang on for another 3 years. Why not?
    Am shocked that I’m not on the ‘late bloomers’ list, with two books written and published between age 70 and 73. I think I shall have to throw a tantrum…

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