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Envy of the Literary World, or another Trust-Fund Novelist?
June 19, 2002 10:36 AM   Subscribe

Envy of the Literary World, or another Trust-Fund Novelist? Following up on the discussion of J.T. LeRoy a few weeks ago, here's a story from the Observer about Nick McDonell, who's 18, just out of high school and about to publish a major novel (you may have read about him in the New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" section). The catch is, his dad edits SI, his publisher is his godfather, and Hunter S. Thompson, who plugs the book, is a family friend. The book's not out yet, so the quality question is moot at this point. But still ... what gives with all this ridiculously young writers these days?
posted by risenc (50 comments total)

 
Nietzsche once claimed that no one under the age of thirty produced art of any lasting merit, however, he hadn't heard S Club 7.
posted by johnny novak at 10:54 AM on June 19, 2002


I recently read Fitzgerald's first novel, This Side of Paradise, whose publication apparently vaulted him to immediate literary fame. As much as I love his later works, I have to say, this novel absolutely sucked. No matter how confessional it was of its own egotism, it still reeked of a distasteful self-absorption, the kind Kundera parodied in "Life Is Elsewhere."

Mastering the technique of compelling narrative fiction at such a young age demands a substantial gift. But in order for a young writer's work to avoid the distracting garbage that comes along with being a "gifted young man," the writer needs to possess more of a moral gift than a technical one.
posted by Pinwheel at 10:56 AM on June 19, 2002


"These days"? Keats died at 26.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:11 AM on June 19, 2002


MrMoonPie's right: artistic prodigies have been touted by patrons for at least 200 years. Mozart's dad had friends in high places. But isn't it like most products of social networking? You might ride the publicity for the first contract/novel/symphony etc, but it takes proper ability to get people to come back for the second.
posted by riviera at 11:17 AM on June 19, 2002


The book is out in the U.S.
posted by sassone at 11:21 AM on June 19, 2002


And how many burn out (or starve, or OD) by their early 30's, having only produced a few flawed, trendy, sporadically brilliant works? I don't think this kind of promotion is good for writers. I don't think it's even good for "writing" in general.
To take another example, I really enjoyed Infinite Jest but it felt like it was written by the smartest kid in class just to show off.
posted by twitch at 11:24 AM on June 19, 2002


The life experience gained by someone in Keat's day by age 26 is probably akin to the life-experience of an 'average' 40 year old today. The mechanics of life were slower, and quieter, which probably allowed much more time for both writing practice and contemplation.

When I look at my own work, I'm struck by the fact that, even though I had a tremendous facility at a younger age, the richness and depth of my work was that of a kiddy pool. It's like owning the finest set of carving tools. Until they are weilded by practiced and seasoned hands, they're no better than a cheap pen knife.

I always feel bad for these kids that get thrust into the 'spotlight' so early in life. If they survive to actually become writers with any depth, I'm sure they will be embarrased of their early work.
posted by evanizer at 11:26 AM on June 19, 2002


You're not going to read a book by a 19-year-old for its great insight into life, so it had better have laughs, high-spirits, and brilliant style.
posted by Faze at 11:33 AM on June 19, 2002


At least one of this crop of new (male) kiddie writers have actually produced a fantastically good first novel.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 11:35 AM on June 19, 2002


Oh, singular/plural agreement, it's so overrated when discussing literature. *sigh*
posted by RJ Reynolds at 11:37 AM on June 19, 2002


Is 18-year-old New Yorker Nick McDonell the most exciting new writer since Bret Easton Ellis?

heh.
posted by gwint at 11:37 AM on June 19, 2002


i think it's like an "as long as it's good" sort of deal. like hunter s. thompson wrote the rum diary when he was 22 and i thought it was pretty good! better even because it was about a middle-aged guy :)

oh and like crazy was okay, too :) like it'd make an okay tom tykwer film!
posted by kliuless at 11:51 AM on June 19, 2002


I don't know, the kid seems pretty grounded from the interview. But like he said, once he gets to Harvard, he'll just be a drop in the ocean in terms of accomplishments and connections.
posted by mariko at 11:51 AM on June 19, 2002


i think it's like an "as long as it's good" sort of deal. like hunter s. thompson wrote the rum diary when he was 22 and i thought it was pretty good! better even because it was about a middle-aged guy :)

From reading the first collection of Thompson's letters I got the impression that the initial idea for "The Rum Diary" was had when he was 22, but that he kept revising it, so in all likelyhood, he probably rewrote pieces recently.

Also, from his letters, I learned to never trust a blurb from him on a book (as he offers to supply them under the condition that he doesn't have to read the book.)

Philip K. Dick was first published when he was 22.
posted by drezdn at 12:26 PM on June 19, 2002


I always feel bad for these kids that get thrust into the 'spotlight' so early in life. If they survive to actually become writers with any depth, I'm sure they will be embarrased of their early work.

But how young is young, evanizer? Even great writers tend to bubble up early, and often with lots of support: I was amazed to read that Dickens came up with Pickwick Papers at the age of 25. Nothing to embarrass him there. Thing is, we think of him as the beardy bloke on the £10 note, not a young man. Same with Hemingway. who was hanging out with literati and knocking out pieces in his early 20s.

And we don't raise an eyebrow at well-supported young actors or musicians, so why make the exception for writers?

(And I hope that Resident Proper Writer Miguel chips in here.)
posted by riviera at 12:56 PM on June 19, 2002


Ah, the children and/or relatives and/or friends of famous people. Some are talented, some are not. Why not give others a chance? Because popular culture is too competitive. It's been happening for a while.
posted by drinkcoffee at 1:16 PM on June 19, 2002


I used to be really envious of Michael Chabon and David Foster Wallace, who both had novels published at 24 (Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Infinite Jest, respectively). I lamented the fact that I was 24, and then older than 24, and hadn't written a damn novel myself. Then I realized, why should your age matter? If you produce a great work, it doesn't matter if you're 24 or 44 or 90. It doesn't make the work any better or worse.

Once you've written it, you've written it.

And sure, the younger writer may get called a wunderkind in his/her time. But in the long run, that doesn't matter. Because everyone dies eventually. And only the work will live on.
posted by Tin Man at 1:33 PM on June 19, 2002


Whoops. Not Infinite Jest. That was later. I meant Broom of the System.
posted by Tin Man at 1:34 PM on June 19, 2002


This tends to be a composite of trends and ever-present truisms. The era of the Romantics was focussed on their youth, energy, and feeling -- things a more cynical age might dismiss as callow. Keats died young; so did Shelley (30) and Byron (36). And it almost seems as if it should be that way, the flame burns brighter &c.

Then there is the constant phenomenon of the bildungs roman, the "novel of formation", and its subset of the kunstlerroman, or the "novel of an artist", which are about the childhood and growth to maturity of a person -- and which are instantly recognizable in almost every first novel out there. Generally these use the writer himself as a protagonist or a thinly veiled fictive counterpart. Often writers are urged to get that dull little bildungsroman typed out and over with before writing the novel that they will shop around to publishers. Somewhat rarely the bildungsroman is indeed prodigious and electric and celebrated, and this encourages the cycle anew.
posted by dhartung at 1:35 PM on June 19, 2002


Alice Munro published her first book (though not her first story) when she was 38; Penelope Fitzgerald I think was over 60. I wonder if perhaps narrative fiction demands something that poetry does not; most of the counterexamples here of those who achieved much at an early age (Keat, Byron, Shelley) were of course poets rather than writers of novels. I'd read a book by a teenager (Evelyn Lau's Runaway, for example) for sheer giftedness with language and facility with expression; I would go elsewhere if I were looking (for lack of a better term) for "insight".
posted by jokeefe at 2:30 PM on June 19, 2002


The life experience gained by someone in Keat's day by age 26 is probably akin to the life-experience of an 'average' 40 year old today. The mechanics of life were slower, and quieter

So what was that fifty percent extra 'life experience' one gained when the mechanics of life were slower? Experience of watching grass grow? (A lawn of beauty is a joy for ever...)
posted by rory at 2:42 PM on June 19, 2002


Ah Christ, someone getting published who ain't me. I hate my life.
Seriously though, sucky though it is, it's possible the kid might be genuinely good. Give him a chance.
posted by RokkitNite at 4:06 PM on June 19, 2002


Sometimes you can wait your entire life to write a book. A complex, timeless work of heart-breaking beauty. Such is the case with one of my all-time favorites - The Leopard by Di Lampedusa.
posted by vacapinta at 4:33 PM on June 19, 2002


And it almost seems as if it should be that way, the flame burns brighter &c.

I've seen this associated with certain forms of creative expression but not with others. Poetry, music, mathematics seem to require a certain exuberance which is the provenance of the young, wilder mind (It is said in math that if you have not made any great discoveries by the time you are 30, you never will)

On the other hand, narrative fiction and I would say physics, require a tamed complexity, a nuanced depth which can only emerge from the deliberations of a much more mature mind.
posted by vacapinta at 4:47 PM on June 19, 2002


Donna Tartt was 28 when The Secret History was published. She got such a tremendous response that she didn't write another book for ten years. (Her new one comes out in November.)

posted by swerve at 4:55 PM on June 19, 2002


Heck, Emily Dickinson was dead when her first book of poetry was published. Just shows you it's never too late.
posted by bobo123 at 5:25 PM on June 19, 2002


"It's people like this that make you realize how little you've accomplished. It is a sobering thought, for instance, that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years."

(Tom Lehrer)
posted by kindall at 5:52 PM on June 19, 2002


Why isn't it ok for someone to be young and write an incredible novel (not that I'm endorsing this one)? After all, some of the most complex computer programs and circuit designs have been done by people under 30.

To me, a novel is a far less complex work then many computer programs.
posted by drezdn at 6:41 PM on June 19, 2002


I think that awhile back we entered the "age of the prodigy" so to speak.

Wayne Gretzky-on skates at 3, star at 12 alegend by his 20's

Britney Spears-started performing around 5 if I recall correctly.

This not to mention Tiger Woods, Harry Connick Jr and like drezdn says, all the baby billionaires of the .com boom.

Looks like it's get started early or not at all . Whatever happened to aimless youth for god's sake? I'm still in mine for crying out loud!
No kidding, this teenage ambition is a tad creepy, if you ask me. I recommend we all practice aggressive sloth and stagnation as a corrective measure.
posted by jonmc at 6:52 PM on June 19, 2002


I think because computer programming is accomplished by understanding the mechanics of computer operation, and the mathematics of computer code. These are fully quantifiable concepts.

Writing a great novel is the opposite, since it deals with the mechanics of human interaction, narrative, poetry, philosophy and language, all of which are extremely variable, subjective, mutable and defy definitive quantification.

It's the difference between the humanities and the sciences, and the two are hardly comparable.

Not to say that aspects of mathematics cannot apply to literary/artistic endeavors and vice-versa, it's just that they are, at the root, unrelated areas of human endeavor.
posted by evanizer at 6:54 PM on June 19, 2002


(Her new one comes out in November.)

Ooh, thanks for the heads-up!
posted by rushmc at 7:06 PM on June 19, 2002


jonmc: Paul Gaugin was a bank teller until he was 35 years old, James Joyce didn't publish his first work of long fiction until he was 34. Marcel Proust didn't come into his own until he was 42, with the publication of the first part of "À la recherche du temps perdu". There's still plenty of time.
posted by evanizer at 7:09 PM on June 19, 2002


James Joyce didn't publish his first work of long fiction until he was 34.

But Dubliners came out when he was 24, and much of Portrait was written in his mid-twenties. I would classify him as getting his start while fairly young. I would pick Paul Bowles as an example of an important writer who didn't become a novelist till later in life.
posted by bobo123 at 7:34 PM on June 19, 2002


Envy of the Literary World, or another Trust-Fund Novelist?

Trust-Fund Novelist. (Hey, you asked!)
posted by Fofer at 7:38 PM on June 19, 2002


hey at least they are out there writing books

what are you doing?
posted by Satapher at 8:02 PM on June 19, 2002


Joyce is definitely a bad example, evanizer. And T. S. Eliot wrote 'Prufrock' in his mid-20s, and 'The Waste Land' before his 30th birthday, while working at a bank, if my A-level English still serves me well. And I'm pretty sure that Rimbaud gave up poetry at the age of 19 to become a slave trader and gun-runner (something that, at the age of 19, impressed me far too much). But it depends what you want to be remembered for: Henry James is my favourite Victorian novelist, and his best stuff came well after Victoria, and has the subtlety of coming from an old man.
posted by riviera at 8:21 PM on June 19, 2002


True regarding Joyce, who was literarily active early on. But I was thinking of him as someone whose most discussed and best work was written later on in his life. And much of his reputation rests on two books, Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake. It was an off-hand example, and could have been better researched. Anyone have any other examples of writers who started later in life?
posted by evanizer at 8:27 PM on June 19, 2002


We're supposed to believe that a rich jock who smugly asserts obnoxious reverse-egotism like:

'Everything stops anyway as soon as I get to Harvard,' he says determinedly. 'There will be a lot of people there who will have done all sorts of remarkable things. I don't want to be, you know, "the book kid". I'm wary when people, Jay McInerney say, tell me I'm going to have lots of women, lots of money, lots of mobility. It certainly hasn't started yet. Nobody's stopped me on the street. It's confusing to me. Everyone says fame will screw you up. Why? You can just be sort of amicable.'

Is going to turn the literary world on it's head? He's flippin' 18 and he's already parroting "what you should say" in order to not offend, being at once privileged and again, published. The book's going for 9.99 (pounds--I don't have the character on my keyboard) on it's first run. Is it going to be shelved next to RL Stine too? Don't these groundbreakers usually come out in hardback first?
posted by crasspastor at 8:38 PM on June 19, 2002


evanizer: Well I mentioned Paul Bowles who didn't write his first novel (The Sheltering Sky) till his late thirties, and Samuel Richardson (Clarissa) didn't start writing novels until he was around 50.
posted by bobo123 at 8:50 PM on June 19, 2002


Also, besides Di Lampedusa (author of one of the greatest Italian novels) who started writing at 58, I'd also add Robert Musil, whose MWQ was not published until he was in his 50's (though I believe he started writing in his 30's.)
posted by vacapinta at 9:01 PM on June 19, 2002


i think it's like an "as long as it's good" sort of deal. like hunter s. thompson wrote the rum diary when he was 22 and i thought it was pretty good! better even because it was about a middle-aged guy :)

the rum diary was originally so poor hunter couldn't get anyone to publish it. It took many, many years of fame and re-writes to get that schlock out the door.
posted by Neale at 11:36 PM on June 19, 2002


There's always Bukowski who didn't really get started until his mid 30's.
posted by pandaharma at 1:38 AM on June 20, 2002


toni morrison published her first novel, the bluest eye, when she was 39. i always remind myself of that.

it's funny that people want their rock stars and their actors young young young--but apparently they want their novelists old?

it would be very neat and tidy if we could assign ages for who can do what when, but in the creative world there really are no rules--for every rule there are just as many exceptions to it. yeah, he's young. and yeah, he may have nothing to say to me. bored rich kids doing drugs is not what i'm interested in. and sure, he's had some help along the way, but that doesn't mean he's not talented and it doesn't mean that he shouldn't be published. since with most of the authors mentioned their first book wasn't their best work, it probably means that he'll get better. he does seem a tad naive about fame and how it can change you. i used to feel the same way, but then when i actually became famous--oh wait, i didn't. :)

and swerve, thanks for the info on donna tartt, i just read secret history and was wondering if she was ever going to write another book.
posted by witchstone at 7:57 AM on June 20, 2002


if you criticize more than you create you are a fool.
posted by Satapher at 10:54 AM on June 20, 2002


like you in this thread, for example. :)
posted by vacapinta at 3:45 PM on June 20, 2002


riiiiiiiiiiiight. =)
posted by Satapher at 6:18 PM on June 20, 2002


What happens when a talented young novelist blunders about, instead of writing novels: "An Afghanistan Picture Show"
posted by sheauga at 8:12 PM on June 20, 2002


I know this thread is probably over, but I thought I'd bring up "The Drowning People" by 20-year-old Richard Mason, which I really enjoyed. I'm looking forward to a sophomore effort.
posted by jacobw at 10:41 PM on June 20, 2002


Just read Twelve this weekend. It actually lives up to the hype. He's no Hemmingway, but it's a really good read, IMHO.
posted by brand-gnu at 1:29 PM on June 24, 2002


Michiko Kakutani's NY Times review is actually quite kind. E.g., it concludes:
Though a couple of the book's subsidiary characters verge on caricature, though the absurd ending feels like a cheap attempt to give the book a big, melodramatic finish, these problems are overshadowed by Mr. McDonell's ability to tell a gripping story. In this debut novel he has constructed a narrative that's as fast as speed, as relentless as acid.
The Times has a picture of the young fellow, to boot.
posted by mattpfeff at 2:13 PM on June 25, 2002


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