Best of late blooming novelists
Against young lists
I wrote An elegy for the capitalist feminism of Tupperware for CapX.
I don’t like literary lists as they don’t usually help me find good books to read, although I will be trying some of the names listed in Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. The Times think it is bizarre for Granta to leave off Sally Rooney—but she is Irish and would perhaps, as Seamus Heaney once did, take offence if we co-opted her onto a British list, enviable talent though she is. However it’s representative of the problem. Zadie Smith made the cut in 2003 and 2013. Don’t get me wrong: Zadie is top drawer, but what’s the point of a once-in-a-decade young talent list including the same person twice? Especially when lists miss people like Maggie O’Farrell who was left off in 2003…
My reason for not liking this list is the word young. Why must they be young? Whence comes this doltish idea that new talent is young talent? One author on the list, Sophie Mackintosh, very graciously said this:
age limits cut off many amazing writers who haven’t had time, space or resources to reach their potential. Everyone emerges at their own pace & I think it’s important to acknowledge this.
Quite right! So, here’s a list of novelists who wouldn’t have been eligible for any sort of “young talent” list.
Lampedusa. Wrote The Leopard aged 59 as a way of managing his nostalgia.
Penelope Fitzgerald. Wrote her first novel aged 60 after a difficult life but one immersed in the study of European languages, culture, and literature. She wrote her three great novels The Beginning of Spring, The Gate of Angels, and The Blue Flower in her seventies.
Cervantes. Wrote Don Quixote from prison in his fifties.
George Eliot. Started writing in her late thirties after a period as a journalist and translator. All major novels apart from Adam Bede produced after the age of forty.
Trollope. A career civil servant who began novel-writing in his forties.
Jean Rhys. Wrote The Wide Sargasso Sea over many years, publishing in her sixties, after a long period of silence.
Norman Maclean. A River Runs Through It was written after Maclean retired from his academic job.
Laura Ingalls Wilder. Started writing stories of her childhood to make money during the Depression. She was in her sixties.
Toni Morrison. Worked in publishing before writing a novel aged 40.
Amy Clampitt. Started writing poetry in her forties; first book published aged 63.
We could also mention Seneca, Montaigne, Johnson, Conrad, Frost, Stevens, Chaucer, Mark Twain, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Daniel Defoe, Edith Wharton, Jonathan Swift, Anna Sewell, Kenneth Grahame, Mary Wesley, and so on and so on.
Maybe in the future we’ll start seeing literary late bloomer lists… or just Best New Talent Irregardless of Age.
The first Common Reader Book Club is on Sunday 16th April 19.00 UK time. That’s 14.00 Eastern and 11.00 am Pacific Time. We are discussing Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Windhover, Elizabeth Bishop’s The Fish, and Seamus Heaney’s Oysters. We’ll be looking at Hopkins’ technique—how does he achieve his effects, and what does his poem mean—and then looking briefly at the way those techniques influence Bishop and Heaney. We’ll talk for about 90 minutes. If you want to join but can’t make the time, let me know.
Subscribers will get the zoom link in a post on Sunday. I will then post some detailed analysis of the poems in a subscribers’ only post and a video of the session. Subscribe today if you want to join us or read my analysis afterwards.