In defense of youth

Proof that the grass really is always greener: Martha Southgate writing about age over at The Millions. "The next time a literary magazine wants to bestow a mantle," Southgate concludes, "here’s hoping the requirements will be: 'Applicants must be over 40 and have published at least one book.'" I've long had an uneasy relationship with age. I've always been younger than the people I spend time with (I am an only child, I skipped a grade, I graduated early from college) and so have often felt that I'm running to catch up, which maybe in part has led me to feel, unlike Southgate, that youth is - despite what fashion magazines and plastic surgeons might say - actually undervalued. Or rather that it is, rightly or wrongly, valued aesthetically but not intellectually. That it's possible to diminish any achievement of the young simply by saying "oh, but he's still young".

My reaction to The New Yorker's 20 under 40 list last year was to heatedly point out to anyone who would listen that only two of the twenty (Téa Obreht, 24, and Karen Russell, 28) were in their 20s; the remaining eighteen were in their 30s. I understand why, logically, there are likely to be more older writers than younger writers on a list like that (if there's a statistic to prove or refute that, please let me know), but it seemed a shame that The New Yorker could find only two 20-somethings worthy of inclusion on the list.

I don't think that 20-somethings write better. I understand very well Southgate's point that "with any luck, your later novels will be better than your first". And I will happily admit that there are pieces of mine I wrote just four or five years ago now that seem at best trite, at worst abominable, to me now. But I do worry that perhaps we have a fear of transparency, of visualizing or exposing growth and change, whether of a manuscript or of an author herself. I worry that we think literary heroes are better left on the pedestal, and if their early work shows less promise than their later work, we ought to learn from this, to encourage new writers to wait, possibly indefinitely, for the right time to say something.

If we encourage this, we may indeed end up with fewer, better books by slightly older authors. But what do we lose?

Alain de Botton's first book, Essays in Love, was written and published when he was in his early 20s. It is arguably not as substantive as his later work, but I'm glad it was published, partly because it gives us a point of reference, an enhanced understanding of de Botton himself, but more because it gives us a sense of immediacy. "Most hot young things," wites the 36-year-old author William Giraldi, "have nothing of value to say." Maybe. But it depends on how we define value. I would venture to say that most hot young things probably do have something of value to say about youth, for instance, because they are there, in the thick of it. What they write about it is valuable as a piece of documentation. There is value in writing about something as it happens, just as there is value in waiting and reflecting.

Moreover, writers have a habit of hating their own work. In a 1959 preface to Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh regretted the "rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful". And no doubt if an author lived forever, he'd consider his early work, published when he was just a hot young thing of 200, to be ill-informed and empty.

I guess as with everything, there's a balance to be struck.