Where Are All the Sad, Young Literary Men (and Women)?

09/24/2013 3:26 PM |

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At last Sunday’s Brooklyn Book Festival, Elon Green asked many established writers who their favorite young writers are and then wrote it up for The Awl. And so who are some of the young literary lights that the older generation of writers (like Nicholson Baker, Lois Lowry, and Pete Hamill) admire? Well, hmm. There really aren’t that many! Not unless you consider thirty-five young. Which, we don’t! And we don’t mean that in a bad way, because we are very conscious of how rapidly we are aging. Like, far too rapidly. We too will someday be 35. Scary. But better than the alternative.

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Anyway, Green posed the question, “What youngsters are you fabulous writers reading?” and quickly found out that most of these fabulous writers aren’t reading anyone younger than Zadie Smith or Rachel Kushner or Sheila Heti, who are amazing, yes, but who are all well over the age of 35, which is not exactly wunderkind territory. There was one notable exception in Green’s round-up, because author Claire Messud seems to have her finger a bit closer to the pulse of young American writers, and was able to name several young authors whose work she admires (Bill Cheng, Scott Cheshire, Philip Klay, Taiye Selasi) who are all under 35, though not under 30. Which, that’s fine! All of the writers mentioned—whether older or younger than 35—are doing exciting work which is definitely worth a look from anyone who is interested in the state of contemporary literature (which, that’s all of us, right? right!). And who says 35 qualifies as “old” anyway? Am I just being an ageist jerk?

No! I can honestly say this is one case where I am not being a jerk, ageist or otherwise. I don’t think it matters at all whether an author’s debut novel comes out when the author is 24 or 40. But I do think it’s interesting that there aren’t any lit-world wunderkind right now, while a decade or so ago, it seemed like you couldn’t open the New York Times (Book Review if it was a man, Styles section if it was a woman or particularly handsome man) without reading about some sparkling, young literary light who was about to take the world by storm. But now? Nothing. Where are this decade’s Jonathan Safran Foers and Zadie Smiths? Are they all hidden away in MFA programs and so aren’t unleashed upon the world until they’re much older? Or is it just the case that those big flashy book deals aren’t the norm in the tumultuous current state of publishing?

It’s probably both of those things, and many other factors, including the reality that writing a novel takes a lot of time. And what is time? Money. And with the economic reality being what it is (which, shit—it is shit) it’s harder for people in their twenties to dedicate themselves to writing a novel that might not sell for very much money anyway. Better to channel literary aspirations in other ways, more lucrative ways. And so, no, there aren’t very many “young” writers who you know about in the way that you knew about Zadie Smith, but that’s ok. Because, frankly, very few 25-year-olds can write like Zadie Smith. But that doesn’t mean established writers shouldn’t be able to name a few people from the younger generation. And so, I never thought I’d say this, but: Shame on you, Lois Lowry! Shame on you.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen