In Praise of Late Bloomers

Forbes has celebrated the dawn of 2015 with its annual 30 Under 30 list, a comprehensive look at the youths who are “killing it” in their respective fields — and a genius inspiration for one feeling that’s always sure to go viral on the Internet: chagrin. It’s hard not to wonder, seeing a numbered list of X Under Y: where do I fit in? I know this from experience, after watching a list I made in August of 25 writers who published great books before the age of 25 propelled across social media by people’s feelings of relative failure.

But here’s the thing: you really don’t have to be a wunderkind. In fact, it’s incredibly hard to become a wunderkind! For every person touched by genius before the age of 21 (Arthur Rimbaud, for one), we have writers like the fascinating poet Spencer Reese or the author of feminist classic The Awakening, Kate Chopin — both writers who had their first publication after the age of 40. Hell, even Jonathan Franzen wasn’t a literary superstar until the fifth decade of his life; The Corrections was published when he was 42.

The comforting thing about writing — and fiction writing in particular — is that even as the media fetishizes youth in every possible medium and forum, youth isn’t a requirement for (sometimes it’s even a hindrance to) producing great literary works. The advantage to publishing a first book, or experiencing the first flush of success in your 40s or later is that by then you’ve already lived a life. We value our literary elders, because we know that their insights, their powers of observation, and their wisdom grows as they age.

Some literary websites do yeoman’s work in keeping track of literary “late bloomers.” The Millions has had a long-running column, instigated by writer Sonya Chung, on “Post-40 Bloomers,” which was successful enough to spin off into its very own website, Bloom, devoted to “authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older; who bloomed in their own good time.” The Bloom “author list” is a fascinating collection of bright lights, from current writers — Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Harding, Ben Fountain, and the epic tale of Reese, a Brooks Brothers clerk-turned-Episcopal priest — to legends like Zora Neale Hurston (who maintained a “public” age of ten years younger) and Walker Percy.

What’s striking about Bloom’s list is what it reveals about women writers in particular: often, at least historically, there’s no time to pick up a pen until after the work of marrying and raising a family is done. In a New York Times interview (excerpted on Bloom), Deborah Eisenberg says,

I thought you would get to be 25 and you would be all baked, your life would be cooked. It’s odd, because one is terribly aware of it going in certain ways, terribly aware of an accretion of experience that is always changing you and always changing your view of things, but one doesn’t experience it as time — one experiences it as change.

Other writers had a different career before life turned the wheel: Walker Percy worked in medicine, which led to time spent in a sanitarium, and benefited from a family inheritance, the sort of events that may just lead to writing. There are also authors like Donald Ray Pollock, a man from a working-class background who labored at a mill until he decided to go back to school in his 30ss, graduating with his BA. “His self-education in fiction writing began with typing out stories he admired by authors like Hemingway, Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Richard Yates, and Denis Johnson,” Bloom notes. From there, he earned an MFA; his first book of dark, brutal short stories, Knockemstiff, appeared when Pollock was in his 50s.

There are a million different routes to creative fulfillment. We’re liable to celebrate people’s youthful achievements at the moment, marveling at how they were able to accomplish so much, so early. But youth is fleeting, just a dumb additional classification like gender or background or ethnicity. Besides: Youthful art has its value and urgency, but I find that much of the time, the work I return to, the work with a place of honor on my bookshelf, comes from writers who’ve lived, writers whose stories wrestle with the successes and disappointments of a life that has some weight to it — a weight that comes from change and time.