Jascha Heifetz, the greatest violinist of the 20th Century, once granted an audience with an admirer, himself a famous entertainer. The entertainer mentioned he had worked in vaudeville at a young age, prompting Heifetz, who was not known to lack modesty, to say that he’d played violin professionally since age eight.
"And I suppose before that," Groucho Marx replied, "you were just a bum."
This came to mind following a story in the New York Times magazine about Charles Bock, a novelist whose first book, "Beautiful Children," has generated a good amount of publicity. The author of the article, Charles McGrath, noted that Bock is 38, which is "a little old for a first novelist."
Us yet-to-be-published novelists (and some already published) grumbled mightily about this slight, which McGrath probably intended to be a throwaway line. It’s true that most "novelists," meaning those fortunate enough to earn real coin for their literary endeavors, usually publish their first book when they’re 25, or, at most, age 30. The current career path of your typical American novelist seems to follow one of three paths:
- They graduate college, publish a novel to great acclaim, make buttloads of money, get their book optioned, make buttloads of more money, then publish a disappointing second book. They rebound with their third ("a return to form" the critics will opine), and establish themselves as Literary Voices of a Generation. See Foer, Jonathan Safran; Smith, Zadie; Shteyngart, Gary; Mitchell, David.
- They publish one totally awesome, totally amazing, totally righteous book, often before the age of 30, then disappear from public view, either publishing in hiding, semi-seclusion, or insanity. Almost always an intellectual 10 times smarter than their readers. See Pynchon, Thomas; Salinger, J.D.; Powers, RIchard; Wallace, David Foster.
- They graduate college, get an M.F.A. at the Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop or such, then publish a collection of well-received short stories. Because everybody knows short story writers make about as much as a flutist busker in the subway, they eventually write a novel that sells fairly well, gets a good amount of critical acclaim, and end up living the next several years in writer’s colonies and retreats (MacDowell, Yaddo, etc.). They land a job teaching creative writing at a college, and write six to eight books over the next 30 years. See, like, a million of them.
Insert witty caption here
Insert witty caption here
Yours truly is 43 and staring 44 dead in the face with the same cold hatred visited upon such villains as Halliburton, bad beer, and the Ohio State Chunkeyes. The last rejection letter for my novel arrived sometime before Eliot Spitzer’s boner went out of control but after Bush was reelected, which is another way of saying that it was long enough ago that I’ve lost track. The last time I spoke to my agent, he cut me off from our conversation from a more urgent matter, which involved deciding if his martini should be shaken or stirred.
This is another way of saying that I don’t expect my novel to get published in the near future, the medium future, far future, or in the dreams of my future. Of this writing, I’m 5 years older than Mr. Bock, and eight older than Mr. Shteyngart and double-digits behind Ms. Smith. I wonder if my age does indeed disqualify me from publication, at least in the minds of some agents and publishers. Though I have addressed this in the past — to get published, one should be young, hot, and have a large something or another — I sometimes worry that my age works against me.
No, no, no, I can hear the Publishing Establishment huffing and puffing, don’t be so paranoid. We don’t care about such things — it’s all about the work. It’s all about the art. Which explains celebrity authors, I realize.
Your tax dollars at work
I imagine from a publisher’s standpoint, it’s more exciting to promote a bright young star than a middle-aged, "who-the-fuck-is-this-joker?" writer. I really can’t call it "ageism" that a younger writer may have an easier time getting published than an older one, but I can’t call it very much fun, either, living with the sinking feeling that one’s window has passed.
Pass the cyanide, please. No, can’t do that, now I got Baby. I will, however, take you up on your offer for a free night with Executive Escorts’ finest adult entertainers. A man has to have a mid-life crisis, somehow.