Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Young Guns and Older Ones

Despite some attractive delusions to the contrary on the part of the unpublished, the fact that it is difficult to get published is nothing new. The climate has always been tough. The modern market has always been driven by profit. Books are, after all, not simply art, they are a product, too. And, then, there is something to be said for the difficulty in achievement. Chiefly because it is in the difficulty that the achievement actually exists. If something is briskly and efficiently attained then I think we can agree that there must be little of substance to it. No, the journey from a single idea to a shelf in a bookshop is, as history amply demonstrates, one largely characterised by disappointment, degradation and borderline lunacy. All this is precisely as it should be. To be a published writer, talent is not enough. You’ll need incredible reserves of drive and commitment, and self-belief in spades. You’ll also need to be able to ignore the pleas of almost everyone around you to stop.

Recently, someone complained to me at length about what they called the ‘fascism of youth’ that they felt now dominated in publishing industry circles. Where, they demanded, was the support for - and interest in - older writers, many of whom had wrestled with the compromises of the 9 to 5, the production and raising of children and who had actually done some of that all important living? Wasn’t it true that personality now predominated over the actual product? Didn’t youth give publishers a great marketing tool, but also let them off the hook, mitigating work that was unpolished, unready or simply flawed?

It’s not that simple, of course. Although, granted, with certain signings over recent years, some sniffy cynicism has set in – even in the media. No, there is a genuine movement of hugely exciting and talented young writers in Wales, in the wider UK, and beyond. And despite the temptation to view it as the inevitable result of a synthetic drive on the part of publishers, that’s clearly not the case. Today’s twenty- and thirtysomethings have been sprinkled with the magic dust: they came to maturity through interesting times. They grew up in the post postmodern age. In their lifetime, community fragmented, industrialisation faltered, advertising - not the Church - shaped all aspects of the lifestyle choice, the testcard became daytime TV, multiculturalism a keyword, George Lucas’s Star Wars was appropriated by Reagan. Communism fell. And, years later, so did the Twin Towers. They watched it all on the portable in their bedroom. Never underestimate the prodigal’s ability to galvanise experience. And one thing particularly occurs to me. Youth, whether in protest or in art, has an uncanny knack of tapping into the essential in experience – even if, sometimes, it loses in the process something of the complexity in experience. For both this strength and this weakness, it has enormous appeal.

But, while the movement of youth is in many respects a logical outcome (cultural and social revolutions belong to the young), the movement of youth does bring with it problems, which my friend above amply highlights. The young do not have the last word on great writing – far from it. They are certainly not the only ones capable of transmuting the strange times in which we live into great art. And there is certainly something shocking in the fact that a writer in their 40s – once considered positively foetal – is now a writer in their middle period (even if they’ve yet to publish a first book). They are no longer young. For the new writer the wrong side of 40 it’s a chill wind that blows alright.

While the Academi bursaries and Arts Council awards continue their excellent work in funding writers – whatever their age – to enable them to dedicate themselves to their art, there is a notable absence in profile-building prizes which validate the promise and achievement of older writers relatively new to professional writing, whether published or unpublished. The Eric Gregory Awards for poets are laudable – but if you’re over 30, you can’t apply. If you’re a newly published writer with a solid first book, you may be fortunate enough to win a Somerset Maugham Award – but, then again, only if you’re 35 or under. The Betty Trask Prize rewards first-time novelists…under 35. The Geoffrey Faber Memorial Award is earmarked for writers under the age of 40. There are numerous smaller awards for writers across the UK. These are generally ring-fenced for younger writers, too. For older writers, there is just one award that I can think of which is specifically designed to encourage and support their writing – the McKitterick Prize for a first novel by a writer over 40 (remember: 40 was once considered young, now it’s the new old). If you’re a brilliant new writer working in whatever genre, The Dylan Thomas Prize might make a great deal of difference to your life, both artistically and financially. But only if you’re under 30.

One can, of course, see the difficulty. Despite the organic development of a young movement in creative writing (admittedly, increasingly shaped by the rise of the creative writing departments), publishers (already struggling to sell their titles in such a competitive market) may be actively disincentivised from pushing older writers – not only are they less immediately ‘sexy’ and newsworthy to the media, but the potential profile-building media opportunities for new, older writers through prizes simply aren’t there. None of this is to undermine the brilliant work that the Society of Authors, the EDS Dylan Thomas Prize trustees or other smaller prizes in the UK seek to do. They play a crucial role in a somewhat beleaguered market by highlighting the vitality of the contemporary literary output and indicating future directions. But many of the most distinguished prizes for younger writers were established during a time when younger writers held a far less assured position in the marketplace and required much greater visibility.

It is important to celebrate the emergence of youthful brilliance - and reward it. But perhaps it is also time to remember that older writers already face significant disadvantages in the market as it is and perhaps they, more than most, could do with a little more support.


Yusuf Martin said...

What an excellent article. Yes maybe I say that as I am an older writer and nod to the lines which endorse my difficulties.

Carrie Etter said...

I didn't realise that my turning 40 a few months before my first book comes out was going to preclude me from several prizes. *sigh*