by Kaulie Lewis
Here at Bloom we dedicate much of our attention to writers who began literary careers after 40, but the term “late-blooming” can also be attached to those who only achieve success or mainstream popularity late in life. There’s Cormac MacCarthy, who didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction until he was 72, 40 years after his first novel was published (the Oyster Review recently published a “Reader’s Guide” to his work, for anyone who hasn’t yet encountered it). And there’s this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Anthony Doerr, whose All the Light We Cannot See was 2014’s “break-out literary bestseller,” as our sister site The Millions put it. (They also reviewed the novel and its beautiful language in a piece well worth reading). Doerr’s a young 41, just barely qualifying for Bloomer consideration, but he published his first novel a decade ago and then waited 10 years for this big break. His story of patient waiting and work is common to all Bloomers’ experiences.
This month the virtue of patiently waiting for literary success became the subject of controversy when Cynthia Ozick took to the pages of the New York Times to give her take on the difference between old and young writers. Though we agree with many of her sentiments, including her belief that “what unites writers . . . is not a common time frame—a contemporaneous cohort—but an affinity of temperament, an affinity that defies the present and the local, and can journey across the borders of time and geography; and is, most particularly, unconcerned by the imaginary moat touted by birth certificates,” her prickly and somewhat idealized representation of the patient early years of today’s “old writers” drew some angry responses, particularly from the New Republic’s Phoebe Maltz Bovy. In a blog post for Ploughshares, Cathe Shubert considered both Ozick’s and Bovy’s essays as reflections on that essential question: “Why do we write? For money? Because we have something to say? Because we ourselves read and are inspired? Because we want validation? Because we’re entitled? Because we yearn to communicate?” Perhaps, she seems to suggest, the answers of “young” and “old” authors are more similar than we think.
This question, “why do we write?,” is at the heart of Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s recent profile in The New York Times Magazine of the great Toni Morrison, who published her first novel at 39 and her most recent, God Help the Child, this month at age 84. Ghansah describes Morrison as someone “who writes to tease and complicate her world, not to convince others it is valid” and as an author who “makes black life—regular, quotidian black life, the kind that doesn’t sell out concert halls or sports stadiums—complex, fantastic and heroic, despite its devaluation.” Morrison is also an author who “prepared the world for her voice and heralded her arrival with her own editorial work” during her time at Random House, further evidence of the power years spent waiting and working can have for a literary career. Morrison’s efforts to complicate the way we understand and write about race find a complement, in the poetry of Claudia Rankine, who won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry at the age of 51 for Citizen: An American Lyric. This month Nick Laird considered her “New Way of Writing About Race” in a review for The New York Review of Books.
Another, more superficial complement to Morrison is the Irish author Edna O’Brien—both women are 84 and still publishing. But as Alison Flood writes for The Guardian, both are “mere whippersnappers” in comparison to Diana Athill, a memoirist whose latest work will be published next year, “just in time for her 99th birthday.” Recent projects by O’Brien and Athill drew considerable interest at this year’s London Book Fair, giving some credence to Ozick’s argument that great writers and great literature are unconcerned with “the imaginary moat touted by birth certificates.”
In addition to book fairs and prize announcements, this month also brought Bloomer news from the theatre and film world. Meryl Streep has funded a lab for female screenwriters over 40, which is currently accepting applications, and Bloomer Alison Bechdel, who didn’t publish her bestselling Fun Home until she was 46, released a coda to that original “comic memoir” that reflects on the her experience watching it be turned into a Broadway musical. “If you can get some brilliant artists to make a musical about your childhood, I highly recommend it,” she writes. “It’s very cathartic.”
In a guest post for Writer’s Digest, “It’s Never Too Late: On Becoming a Writer at 50,” Rebecca Foust reflects on another cathartic experience: the moment she realized her poetry, which she only began writing at 50, mattered, and that writing was something she was “meant to do.” “Sometimes people ask if I regret ‘wasting’ all those decades before I learned to believe in my writing and take it seriously,” she writes. “No, I tell them, I was gestating, amassing experience and material I tap into when writing my poems today. Things happened as and when they were meant to, I think.” As we believe they very often do.