by Kaulie Lewis
June may be the beginning of the summer, when the long days and warm nights finally come to stay, but it can also be a time of good-byes. This month we lost James Salter, a brilliant and celebrated author who’s delighted readers since his first novel The Hunters was released in 1956, when he was 32. But Salter’s best-known work, A Sport and a Pastime, didn’t come out until 1967, when he was 42. He went on to publish a total of 20 books, the last of which, All That Is, came out in 2013, when he was 90. The outpouring of grief and remembrance seen across the Internet this last week is a good reminder of the lasting power of a life spent writing well: The Millions shared an interview our own Sonya Chung conducted with Salter a few years ago; The Paris Review published the speech he gave when he accepted their annual Hadada Prize; and even Vogue shared an essay he’d written about spending an hour with Nabokov.
Another well-established author with a long history of acclaimed publication and dedicated readers is Milan Kundera, who published his first novel at 38 and his best-known, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, at 55. He’s just released another book, his first in 15 years, titled The Festival of Insignificance, and the reviews, well, they’re mixed. Michiko Kakutani finds that the novella’s title “read[s] like a knowing, pre-emptive joke about its own superficiality” and that the writing is ultimately as insignificant as it claims. In an essay for The Millions, Alina Cohen makes essentially the same argument: “Kundera doesn’t deliver. Instead of exploring what brought these men together and makes their relationship work, he focuses instead on those relationships that hold no significance. In its own twisted logic, the novel asserts that the insignificant is actually significant and worthy of its own narrative.” It’s a philosophical point greatly at odds with Kundera’s earlier work, and that may be the novella’s most interesting quality. Of course, we recommend you read it for yourself and decide.
A book that has been reviewed very well and went on to win this year’s Baileys Prize (formerly the Orange Prize) for Fiction is Ali Smith’s How to Be Both. It’s her sixth novel. Her first, Like, came out when she was 35. Now, at 52, she’s already been shortlisted for a number of awards, including the Man Booker and the Folio Award, and has gained considerable attention. The Baileys Prize is an excellent continuation of that, as one of the prize judges declared that How to Be Both “reminded me of what it felt like reading Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, all of the greats . . . that this is not a good book, this is a great book, and people are going to be reading it long after I’m dead.”
Another writer drawing attention for a recent release and with a wonderful outlook on writing from an older stance is Jami Attenberg, who just published Saint Mazie. Her breakout novel, The Middlesteins, came out when she was 39, just months shy of Bloomer status. That novel gradually gained popularity and made it to the cover of the New York Times Book Review a few months after it was published. When asked what made the work so successful, Attenberg names one possibility: getting older. As Hannah Gersen explains, “she wroteThe Middlesteins in her late 30s, with three books to her name and some insight into the person who wrote them.” In Attenberg’s own words, “I finally got to a place where I had a little perspective and could take a step back.” She echoes this sentiment in an interview with Emily Gould for The Rumpus.
Another writer who enjoyed late-in-life literary success: Nigel Slater, author of many, many cookbooks and, more recently, two memoirs, the first of which came out when he was 46. If those seem like radically different genres, well, they are: cookbooks tell relatively little about their author, while memoirs, of course, work in exactly the opposite way. But Kathleen Alcott has written a piece for The New Yorker explaining her love for his cookbooks and her realization that “the fundamental appeal of his books is, for me, reducible to the reason he began to cook at all,” a story she never would have known without his memoirs. It’s a refreshing take on cookbooks and a wonderful example of a late-in-life career switch and a writer who came to creative work a little belatedly, with great success.
Lastly, this month we leave you with Hanja Yanagihara, a writer who published her first novel in 2013 at age 38, and who just this year joins the writers-over-40 club. She’s also released a second work, A Little Life. In an essay for The Atlantic, promisingly titled “The New Canon,” Garth Greenwell celebrates the novel as “The Great Gay Novel” we’ve all been waiting for, “the most ambitious chronicle of the social and emotional lives of gay men to have emerged for many years.” It’s wonderful praise and an encouraging confirmation of Bloomers’ abilities—never doubted by us—to produce culturally necessary work.