40 Over 40 November 3, 2012Posted by The Typist in Toulouse Street.
I grow weary of contests and lists that highlight emerging young writers. I subscribe to Narrative and what tipped me over the edge was their relentless promotion of their 30 Under 30 contest (entry fees apply, natch). I started writing seriously, excluding journalism, in the middle of the last decade, and say my first poem published I think three, four years ago. I have friends who also began to write seriously in mid-life, and I wonder why no one pays any attention to this cohort of writers. Here is a sample list from an article in the New York Times of notable writers who achieved success or even started writing late in life. Proust started Remembrance of Things Past at 39. The essay, however, sticks up for the Under 30 or Under 40 bar.
Joseph Conrad didn’t become a major writer until his 40s (after long years at sea). Katherine Anne Porter was 40 when her first short-story collection was published. Virginia Woolf entered her prime in her 40s. Norman Rush’s first novel wasn’t published until he was in his 50s. Nor is it to say that brilliant young novelists don’t mature into greater ones. Henry James peaked at about 60. Roth reached an extraordinary phase in his 60s. The Bellow of “Herzog” (49) is a greater artist than the Bellow of “The Adventures of Augie March” (38), which itself introduced a wholly new aesthetic to the English-language novel. And the Don DeLillo of “Underworld” (60) far surpasses the DeLillo of “End Zone” (35).
I started late, and have a coterie of friends who did as well. None will ever be able to enter one of these contests and rocket to notoriety, prominent publication and review in the NYT in our youth, because youth is behind us all. I disagree with the essay’s assertion that “[n]ot 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.” The deep store of memory changes character with time like cellared wine, and in the best cases the vintage is improved. If the muse, which like angels is more monstrous than most people imagine, comes late in life it is not blunted by age. It may be your grandfather’s spotted carbon steel knife, an edge rescued from an obscure drawer and honed by persistent whetting into surgical perfection.
I’m not the first to ask this question. Here’s an essay by Martha Southgate at The Millions, and another by Steve Almond at TheRumpus. I can’t find a list or contest anywhere, at least none that The Google (oh, all-knowing One) offers up.
So here is my suggestion. Odd Words is going to assemble a list of regional writers who began publishing after 40, or published their first book-length work after 40 if published before. It is open to nomination by anyone, including the writer. I just need a name, a first publication anywhere by genre (more than one entry OK if they work in multiple genres) or of a first book-length work, the title and publisher, and an email address of the author if you are nominating someone else. If all you know is the person you are nominating’s email address and a title, send it to me, and I will run down the rest. Publication is limited to hard copy. I prefer writers someone believed in enough to spend money and kill trees to get their work out. Genre fiction is fine. Self-published works are not. Given Odd Word’s New Orleans focus, I’m looking for nominees from Louisiana, Mississippi and SE Texas. Mobile would be OK. Hey, it’s my list so I get to make the rules and I’m making them flexible so if you know someone in Birmingham or Montgomery or Austin send them along and maybe they’ll make the list. If I can’t get to 40 in, perhaps it will become 30 over 40. The number 30 seems to have some mystical power over list editors, some finality like the old telegrapher’s 33 at the end of a newspaper writer’s story.
This is not a contest. The most I can promise is an effort to take this viral, and get the writer’s name out into the wider world. The selected nominees will be published alphabetically, and the number cut will be determined by submissions and proximity to New Orleans. I’m not equipped to judge a contest and rank people. I’m relying on the editors of presses small and large to have culled the list for me. It is not a contest but maybe it will be the start of a movement as accidental as Alice’s Restaurant Thanksgiving Day Massacre, spreading to other blogs and journals until somewhere, someday, a Big Dog will decide to jump on it and we’ll see the first lists black on white.
Send your nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org, with the word Nomination in the subject line. I have no idea how long it will take to amass this list, but there’s no time like the present to get started.