Old Dogs, New Tricks

I’ve noticed I’ve been posting a lot of obituary notices recently. Mordecai Richler, Eudora Welty, Poul Anderson – it’s enough to make you think about a changing of the guard. Many of the world’s most highly regarded authors are now very old and, frankly, we can’t expect them to be around much longer. This raises the question of succession. Who will be the literary lions of the twenty-first century?

But perhaps that’s moving just a bit too fast. Philip Roth, age 68, has his doubts about whether literature, at least as we know it, will even exist in the new millennium:

I’m not good at finding encouraging features in American culture. I think we’ve got a substantial group of original and talented writers who’ve been at work in America for the past 20 or 30 years, but their readership gets duller and smaller every year. I doubt that aesthetic literacy has much of a future here.

Well! Imagine being a young American writer and reading that! America’s most original and talented writers are part of a group that have been writing for 20 or 30 years! So much for the next wave!

But with all due respect, Roth is wrong. For one thing, very few writers manage to keep producing quality original work for periods of 20 or 30 years. The average, I would say, is around 10. This is the time that William Faulkner described as when a writer is “hot”:

I think there’s a period in a writer’s life when he, well, simply for lack of any other word, is fertile and he just produces. Later on, his blood slows, his bones get a little more brittle, his muscles get a little stiff, he gets perhaps other interests, but I think there’s one time in his life when he writes at the top of his talent plus his speed, too. Later the speed slows; the talent doesn’t necessarily have to fade at the same time. But there’s a time in his life, one matchless time, when they are matched completely. The speed, and the power and the talent, they’re all there and then he is – the American says, he’s “hot” – which of course can’t last forever . . .

No, it doesn’t last. Writers do get old. And once it’s over – and for many of the “original and talented” writers I think Roth has in mind it has been over for quite a while now – they really should stop. Unfortunately, the power of the brand, like a corporate logo, survives the individual.

That writers only have a limited window of creativity is, of course, only a general rule. One of the most prominent recent exceptions I can think of is Roth himself, a writer who really has been producing great work for the past four decades. Authors do not come with expiration dates, producing all of their work before they turn 31. Nevertheless, I do think it’s a rule worth keeping in mind when considering the question, much on everyone’s mind these days, of who has it worse: young writers or old?

Ageism, it would appear, is a double-edged sword. In columns littering the opinion pages from London to New York to Toronto, the Old Guard and the Young Turks are lining up. Not, as one might have expected, to say who is best. As Robert Hughes has it, ours is a culture of complaint. The most important thing our artists have to establish is their victim credentials.

A recent case in point is that of the British novelist Francis King. According to stories appearing in the Guardian, the 78 year old author had a hard time finding a publisher for his latest novel. Lovers of serious literature rushed to his defence, publicly airing their support for the critically respected septuagenarian, as well as their weariness with hipster writing, chick-lit, and the huge advances given to mediagenic stars and unproven hotshots. Beryl Bainbridge (age 66) complained of how getting published increasingly depends on the amount of publicity an author can generate in a mass media that is at best indifferent to seniors. To be published today one needs to be good-looking, politically sexy, or just the freak of the week. “If Francis wrote another novel now and sent in a photograph of a bimbo and said he was 23 and pregnant, he’d be all over the newspapers.” One prominent British literary agent even had this to say:

I think it virtually impossible now for any novelist over the age of 30 to get published even if, like Francis King, they are successful. Publishers are not interested because their editors are all aged about 12 and they only want books by girls in their twenties, particularly if they are pretty. [Peter] Ackroyd said to me recently he thought that if he started writing his novels now he would not find a publisher.

It is easy to rage against the way celebrity so callously scatters her blessings. And yet the King story does make us reconsider the wider implications of the convergence of publishing with the rest of the entertainment industry. What older writers are complaining about is not that they are being ignored as writers (in fact, they still do very well), but that writing itself is being swallowed whole by a pop culture industry geared almost exclusively toward the youth market. In order to become marketing blockbusters, books are expected to hit high-consumption demographics. These are not traditionally identified with the people who read books or watch 60 Minutes. Big advances go to books that are easy to sell to Hollywood or Oprah (or both). Most glorious of all is the book as franchise, a genre that covers most self-help authors as well as Harry Potter.

On the other side of the ageism debate we have the various regional brat packs, popping up like so many revolutionary youth movements: Young Britain, Young America, Young Canada. Recently stepping into the role of Mazzini of the Young Canadians is Andrew Pyper. In an article that received a surprising amount of attention (especially given its obscure provenance), Pyper described a bias in the Canadian media toward a vision of what CanLit should be: “nice, harmless, and decidedly grey-haired.”

It’s important to note that Pyper’s essay wasn’t an attack on a stodgy Old Guard of Canadian writers, but rather a criticism of the media whose job it is to promote their work. His basic point is that the work of young Canadian authors receives unfair treatment at the hands of reviewers who use code words like “satire,” “trendy,” “urban,” and “young” for the “dismissal of the new.” Rather than being the pampered darlings of the press, young writers are really the victims of a grey-haired cabal.

It’s true that young writers have been stereotyped by a conservative literary establishment in Canada. As Russell Smith has pointed out, even the definition of a “young” writer in Canada is a bit of a stretch. “It’s very odd that I’m usually considered – in fact always considered – a young writer,” the 37-year-old told the National Post. “I mean, I’m very flattered, but it’s because Canadian literature is so old that I am considered young.” More recently, Dennis Bock was apparently paid a compliment by his agent when she described him as having an old mind in a young body. Only in Canada.

The ugly side of the youth movement is the convergence it foreshadows (especially in the way young writers are marketed), as well as the fact that many of the most celebrated offerings of the brat packers are obviously trash. This has nothing to do with the fact that they are ironic, urban, trendy or hip. Dennis Bock is none of these things, and yet he is still a bad writer. The problem with White Teeth is that it is a comic book, not that it tries too hard to be hip. The Beach is a juvenile fantasy, but no more so than The English Patient. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is obviously a bit of student writing, eager to be graded on its Big Themes, but we can hardly say that’s what it wants to be.

The future doesn’t look bright. That such worthless stuff is so widely and highly praised suggests that there is less to be worried about from the media than Pyper thinks. After all, the media only tell us what the publishers want them to, and the fact is the publishing industry needs young writers. Old readers are dying off. Plus they have a nasty habit of using libraries (and not just for surfing the Internet).

But let it be said: Art is the province of the young. To the extent that writing is a craft one can at least hope to hold one’s own. As Faulkner put it, “the talent doesn’t necessarily have to fade.” But passion, creativity, inspiration and genius belong to the young, or at least the young in heart and mind. Youth can be used as a marketing ploy, it’s true. But that won’t stop me looking for the Next Big Thing.

Notes:
Essay first published online October 24, 2001.

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