Monday, June 21, 2010

Fiction over 40: Is it possible?

I am not sure what to be more depressed about: the fact that the New Yorker's "20 Under 40" list contains so many people who are more accomplished than I will probably ever be, or that Sam Tanenhaus thinks most people over 40 can't write. In Sunday's NYT Book Review, Tanenhaus lists all the great authors who did their best work--or what "history" has deemed their best work--before the age of 40. Well, the list, though impressive, isn't that long, really--when you think of all the great authors past and present. And he does give some exceptions--Virginia Woolf, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth--to give some of us on the downhill slope of artistic possibility the faintest glimmer of hope. (Or maybe that's just the abyss, which glimmers too.)

I would point out that many of the examples of those who peaked before 40 lived in the olden days. Like, before 1950, or even 1900. Might this early peaking be attributable to historical or sociological factors, rather than something innate? Tanenhaus seems to think not:

Not 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.

Look, I'm more than happy to sink into despair at the slightest hint that I may not be up to achieving my dream. Give up? Give me a reason. But I don't think Tanenhaus has.

More direct access to childhood? So the best authors are, what, twelve? Sixteen? Four? Let's get those nursery school kids into critique groups, pronto! And do we really only want stories about kids, or people who think like kids? I'm all for freshets of sensation and revelation, but are these experiences really only possible for children? I would suggest that more than a few young people spend their days avoiding freshets and revelations of all kinds, and only later, with the perspective that comes with few forehead wrinkles, are able to open up to the world.

I mean, are all those books on finding your inner child just psychic snake oil? OK, yes. But it is entirely possible, as well as desirable, to find new ways to see the world afresh--at all stages of one's life. THAT IS WHAT ART IS FOR, FOR CHRISSAKE. Who are all these brilliant young writers writing for anyway? Themselves? If so, they would not be brilliant.

So if your life is short of freshets lately, even if you are really freakin old and should just give up, here are a few things to try before you do that:

* Art. Look at it. Read it. Listen to it. Feel it. Taste it. Talk about it. etc.
* Astronomy. Look at some pictures from the Hubble Telescope. Now look at, I dunno, anything. Changes your perspective, right?
* Water. Spend some time near it or in it.
* Meditation.
* Remembering your dreams.
* Taking a photo a day and writing a description of it.
* Look through the wrong end of the binoculars.
* Get away from the computer.
* And so forth.

None of these suggestions is particularly new, and some veer into "inner child" territory that I would rather avoid. (My inner child is a brat, turns out.) I'm just saying, we can train ourselves to observe, and to feel wonder. We can work on our memories. So if that's the only reason older people supposedly can't write--because their memories of childhood are too foggy--that is just no reason at all.

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