Thursday, July 8, 2010

Guest in Progress: Joe Schuster on "20 Over 40"

This is another story of how small the writing world is (be nice, people!) and the miracle of Facebook: I met the wonderful fiction writer Joe Schuster at Bread Loaf way back when, and after losing touch, we reconnected on Facebook. Happily so, as I’m pleased to present this smart, thoughtful—and dare I say inspirational?—response to the New Yorker’s recent list of writers who are all under 40 years old. If you’re “of a certain age”—or worried that you weren’t on “the list”—take heart, and check out Joe’s list of writers who first published their books later in life.

Twenty Over Forty
When magazines like The New Yorker publish lists of young writers to watch, they ignore the fact that a writing career is more of a marathon than it is a sprint.

By Joe Schuster

In June 1999, the Arizona Diamondbacks chose a shortstop named Corey Myers with the fourth pick in the first round of that year's baseball draft. In all, the thirty major league franchises chose more than 1,470 players in the draft that summer and, with its choice of Myers, the Diamondbacks essentially proclaimed him the fourth best amateur player in the U.S. Playing for Phoenix's Desert Vista High School, that year Myers had set a state high school record for home runs in a season, with 22; he also held the state record for most home runs in a high school career. His prodigious offensive statistics convinced Arizona to give him a $2 million bonus just for signing a contract.

Meanwhile, in the thirteenth round of that draft eleven years ago, as the 402nd player anyone selected, the St. Louis Cardinals chose another infielder, this one from Maple Woods Community College near Kansas City: Albert Pujols.

If you pay even slight attention to baseball, you know that Pujols may be the best player today. Since arriving in the major leagues in 2001, he has won his league's Most Valuable Player Award three times, something that only seven other players have managed in the eighty years since the Baseball Writers of America began making the award. In nine of his ten seasons so far, including this one, he's been a member of the All Star team.

Myers, on the other hand, never made it to the major leagues. He spent nine years in the minor leagues, playing for teams in baseball's hinterlands, in towns like Lancaster, California, South Bend, Indiana, and Little Rock, Arkansas, and then left the game. If you do a Google search for him, one of the top hits is a query someone posted two years ago, asking if anyone knew how to contact him. No one has replied.


In a way, a publication like the recent New Yorker summer fiction issue is something like the baseball draft. Titled "Twenty Under Forty," this year's special issue anoints a score of writers as those the editors feel "are, or will be, key to their generation."

It's not the first time the magazine has celebrated the work of younger writers in this fashion. Eleven years ago—the same summer the Diamondbacks were deciding that Corey Myers was, by a rough magnitude of 100, a far better prospect than Albert Pujols—the magazine called its fiction issue, "The Future of American Fiction," and named twenty writers under forty "the best young fiction writers in America today." Among others, that list included Jhumpa Lahiri, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Interpreter of Maladies the next year, Michael Chabon (Pulitzer, 2001, Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay), Jonathan Franzen (National Book Award, 2001, The Corrections), Junot Diaz (Pulitzer, 2008, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) as well as Rick Moody, the late David Foster Wallace, Antonya Nelson and Ethan Canin.

While certainly a number of them are important today, and a number of those the magazine cited this summer may become so in the next decade or so—several have already published celebrated books, including Joshua Ferris, Jonathan Safran Foer and ZZ Packer—there are several problems with any enterprise like this.

(Before I go further, I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that any of the writers on this year's list or the one from 1999 do not merit celebration. Writing brilliantly—even writing well—is difficult and any means we have to recognize excellence is a good thing.)

The first problem is that by publishing such a list, the magazine seems to imply that no one outside the list is or will be a significant writer. However, as the Arizona Diamondbacks discovered—and as major league teams discover every year when they give seven-figure checks to prospects who never produce as their teams expect, predicting the future is nearly impossible. Any of the writers that The New Yorker deemed "key to their generation" may decide tomorrow, "Writing, schmiting, I want to devote my life to making the Olympic team as a curler."

Even if they all forsake curling and stick it out as writers, sitting down at their PC or their Mac Powerbook or iPad every day for the next thirty years or so, some may never publish again or may publish little. Roughly a quarter of a century ago, in 1986, Debra Spark edited an anthology with similar aims, one with even more strict parameters: Twenty under Thirty. Some of those writers who were then in their twenties have had significant success, among them Lorrie Moore, Bret Lott, David Leavitt, Mona Simpson, and Robin Hemley. If, however, you search the Amazon catalogue for some of the writers Spark decided to include, you will turn up not a single title. The fact that they perhaps never published a book does not mean she was wrong in recognizing their work –if you write and try to publish, you know that it's a complicated, difficult business.

The most significant problem with lists like these however—lists that celebrate younger writers to the exclusion of anyone nearer eligibility for an AARP card or senior discounts at Denny's—is that they suggest (and here I borrow a cliché players often use when they talk about a baseball season) that a career as a writer is something of a sprint, rather than the marathon it is. While clearly some writers do have early success and see success for decades after that, for a good number of writers, success comes more slowly. Perhaps they came to writing later; perhaps they raised children or faced other demands from family or work that kept them away from their desks; perhaps they struggled to find the confidence to send their work out for publication; perhaps it took them years or decades to find their voice or a story that compelled them enough to keep working at it days on end, draft after draft, to give the story the proper respect it merited; perhaps it took them a long time of dedication to their work and years of rejection before they found an editor who saw the value in their work and decided to publish it.

This year, for example, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction went to a small book, Tinkers, issued by a small press associated with a New York hospital. It was the debut of a writer over forty, Paul Harding, who, before the first copy came off a press, reportedly endured six years and "a raft of rejections" as the New York Times put it in its story about the prize. The problem, as the story goes, was not that his book wasn't good—it was that the agents and commercial publishers he approached thought it was too slow and contemplative for contemporary tastes. Harding told the Times reporter that the publishers asked, "Where are the car chases?"

Several times this decade, in fact, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction has gone to writers who never showed up on any list of the "best under forty" and who, in fact, didn't publish their first book until they were past forty. Last year, Elizabeth Strout (born 1956) was honored for the marvelous Olive Kitteridge. While, unlike Harding, it was not her first book, like him, she was past forty when she published her first, Amy and Isabelle (1998). Six years ago, Edward P. Jones (born 1951) won the Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, the stunning The Known World; like Strout, he had published a book previously, the PEN/Hemingway award winning Lost in the City, and also like Strout and Harding, he was past forty when that first book came out. While Geraldine Books (born 1955), who won the prize in 2006, for March, did publish a book before she was forty, Nine Parts of Desire (1994), it was a work of nonfiction and her first novel, Year of Wonders, appeared seven years later, (2001.)

(Just as I don't intend to suggest that the writers in any of these lists of literary wunderkind don't deserve recognition, I also don't want to suggest that prizes like the Pulitzer or the National Book Award are the only measure of success—they are simply a convenient measure.)

Whether we're twenty when we publish our first book, or forty or fifty or, like Peter Ferry who published his first novel, Travel Writing, when he was 62, or in our eighties like Myrrah Stanford-Smith who this June signed a three-book contract with an English publisher, the truth is that writing takes as long as it takes. Norman Mailer reportedly wrote his masterpiece The Naked and the Dead in fifteen months and published it when he was 25. After his success with his collection, Lost in the City, Edward P. Jones needed another ten years before he could produce The Known World. Neither book is better than the other simply because of how much or how little time it took the author to get it out of himself; neither book has the merit it does because the author was younger than X years or older than Y when he wrote and published it. A book takes what a book takes.

Twenty Over Forty:

As a complement to The New Yorker's, "Twenty Under Forty," here is a list of twenty fiction writers who published their first book when they were past 40. The list is merely representative (and includes only fiction writers)—I am not saying these are the best writers who published their first books after forty, merely that these twenty men and women represent the vast numbers of writers that lists like the New Yorker's "Twenty under Forty" exclude, writers who worked for decades when no was noticing them, when few aside from their spouses/significant others and friends encouraged them, when, in many cases, they sat down at a computer or a table in a coffee shop with a legal pad and number two pencil and wrote without any notion they'd make a dime from it, wrote simply because something compelled them to put one word after another.

I have listed each author alphabetically, the year he or she was born, the title of his or her first book, the year it appeared, and also added a note about any prizes that book received or a subsequent celebrated work.

Richard Adams (1920), Watership Down, 1972.
Robin Black (1962), If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, 2010
Raymond Chandler (1888), The Big Sleep, 1939
K.L. Cook, (1964), Last Call, 2004 (Prairie Schooner Book Prize)
Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) (1885), Seven Gothic Tales, 1934.
Harriet Doerr, (1910), Stones for Ibarra, 1984 (National Book Award)
Clyde Edgerton (1944), Raney, 1985; Edgerton has published nine novels after he turned 40.
Peter Ferry (1946), Travel Writing, 2008
Charles Frazier (1950), Cold Mountain, 1997 (National Book Award)
Julia Glass, (1956), Three Junes, 2002 (National Book Award)
William Golding (1911), Lord of the Flies, 1954
Paul Harding (1967), Tinkers, 2009 (Pulitzer Prize)
Kent Haruf (1943), The Tie That Binds, 1984; Plainsong, 1999, National Book Award Finalist
Edward P. Jones (1951), Lost in the City, 1992 (PEN/Hemingway Award): The Known World, Pulitzer Prize, 2004.
Tillie Olsen (1912), Tell Me a Riddle, 1961; Olsen may well have turned up on
a list of "Twenty under Thirty" if one had existed. After she published a story in the
Partisan Review in 1934, Random House gave her a book contract. Because of demands of family, and other reasons, she abandoned it until decades later. It's appropriate then that one of her books, Silences, was a nonfiction consideration of writers block and other obstacles to writing.
Walker Percy (1916). The Moviegoer, 1961 (National Book Award)
E. Annie Proulx (1935), Heartsongs and Other Stories, 1988; The Shipping News, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, 1994
Carol Shields 1935), Small Ceremonies, 1976; The Stone Diaries, Pulitzer Prize, 1995
Elizabeth Strout (1956), Amy and Isabelle 1998; Olive Kitteridge, Pulitzer Prize, 2009)
William Wharton (1925), Birdy, 1978; in all, Wharton published eight novels after he was 50

About: Joe Schuster
has published short fiction in The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review and Western Humanities Review, among other journals. He is chair of the Department of Communications and Journalism at Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri. Already eligible for membership in the AARP, he has spent the last nine years writing and revising a novel, "Everything He Might Have Been," that he finally feels is good enough to send out. He lives next to a bird sanctuary in a distant suburb of St. Louis, is married and the father of five and grandfather of one. You can read his novel-in-progreess here, though please note that the first paragraph is a brief summary of previous action.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.