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Age and the fiction writer

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Mistaken beliefs: Literature is for everybody.
Mistaken beliefs: Literature is for everybody.

ADITYA SUDARSHAN

Why is it that we are willing to grant young writers ‘potential’ but not ‘insight’?

Literature, Naipaul once remarked, is not really for the young. In the course of his career the man has made many controversial and hotly debated remarks, but this has not been one of them. On the contrary, it is a thesis widely treated as true, that a writer of fiction is green in his youth and gets better with time. Individual proponents of the theory might easily be named, but a thought experiment will better establish its general acceptance. Imagine a critic, reviewing a book, and writing of its author, “X is a woman, and so we may forgive her lack of insight”; he would lose his job. He would lose it just the same if X, in that sentence, was a North Indian or a Muslim or dark-skinned. But if, instead, our critic forgave X, because “X is a young man”, not only would he keep his job, he might also gain a reputation for wisdom, gentleness and compassion. Is this fair? Must a young writer, to whom “talent” and “potential” are so freely accorded, be denied insight — the one attainment that defines the artist — until there is some grey in his hair? I suggest that the answer is No, and the theory is a mistake, and a big one to boot.

Obvious arguments

The case in its favour is simple and, from the looks of it, strong. First and most fundamental, it seems obvious that if one wishes to say something of “life”, one must have lived a little. Lacking experience, one lacks knowledge. Second, writing is a craft and the more one does it the better one gets at it. There are techniques to be learned, and that takes time. Finally, writing is not the pastime of a few months or years. It is the vocation of a lifetime. Given the scale of the task, surely it is logical to assume a period of apprenticeship that extends (at least) through one’s twenties, and then a period of consolidation and refinement ever after? To date, the youngest Nobel Laureate in Literature is Kipling, and he was 42, no spring chicken. So is Naipaul right?

Before we turn to the analytical reasons why not, let us consider the cases of three great authors, each of whom started young. Charles Dickens was 24 when The Pickwick Papers was published. It was his first novel, a hilarious, rollicking jaunt of a novel, which G.K. Chesterton has called “the great example of everything that made Dickens great”. Rudyard Kipling was 22 when Plain Tales from the Hills appeared; sharp, witty accounts of English lives in India; “he terrifies us with his truth”, wrote Oscar Wilde. And of all Kipling’s work, it was this book that Naipaul picked out for a dose of (rare) praise. Before F. Scott Fitzgerald was 30, he had published three of his four finished novels, including The Great Gatsby, his romantic masterpiece.

Were these men aberrations? Were they, by some quirk of nature, granted middle-aged maturity at a prematurely early age? No, because these books are so youthful. There is nothing in the least middle-aged about them. Dickens never wrote another novel like Pickwick Papers, with its unfettered, formless vitality; at the end of his days he was writing the highly structured Edwin Drood. The tender gravitas of the elder Kipling of If and the Just So Stories is a far cry from the frankly gossipy Plain Tales from the Hills. Even Fitzgerald, for whom the ways of youth were a way of life, lost to a great extent the lyrical penchant for “fine writing” that made his early work so beautiful. In its stead he developed the pithiness and sardonic wit that marks his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, and more clearly his last several short stories.

Different perceptions

The point is not that these writers grew worse with time. Or better. The point is, they grew different with time. Their abilities changed with time. They remained great in middle-age and beyond — for one set of reasons — but they started great in their youth, for another set of reasons. And this is the clue to our mystery.

Yes, writing is a lifetime’s vocation. Which is why a 45-year-old writer is no more “superior” to a 25-year-old, than 45 years of life are “superior” to 25. The common mistake is to assume that at the later age you have all that you did at the earlier, plus 20 years experience. The truth is, people forget. At 20 it seems scarcely conceivable that we were once six years old — a child is a stranger — and similarly, at 40 the young person is a stranger. His or her way of thinking and feeling is irretrievably lost — it shows in the clash of the generations, and it shows in the writing. “Experience” is not a commodity that keeps increasing quantitatively; it only keeps changing qualitatively; and so, incredible though it may seem, the 25-year-old writer possesses as many passionately felt thoughts, and as many means of expressing them, as he or she ever will. Looked at another way, it is worth noting that there comes an age beyond which one word fits all: the word is “adult”, and if you are not one by 25, you probably won’t be one by 75.

All this is important for a single, outstanding reason: that the preponderance of Naipaul’s sentiment can, and no doubt has, waylaid many a career. It is very easy, and very deadly, for young writers to put off their work on the theory that they are too young, and can’t possibly have anything “really great” to say just yet. Their every instinct may be crying out against the theory, but such is the power of suggestion and the brittleness of psychology, and the fragility of confidence, that we don’t always trust our instincts. Discouragement is cheap and easy, but what is always wanted — now more than ever for Indian writing in English — is enthusiasm. So it needs to be said, that age is a number, and literature for the young.

Aditya Sudarshan is the author of A Nice Quiet Holiday (Westland Books, 2009). Email: aditya.sudarshan@gmail.com


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