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Writers Old and Young: Staring Across the Moat

31 March 2015

From author Cynthia Ozick via The New York Times:

Old writers are taken to be as nonessential as old magazines that long ago expired: they are repetitious and out of date, they fail to be of interest even to themselves, they are worn out. A very few have been known to admit to this crisis of confidence or exhaustion, as when in a burst of self-extinguishment as shocking as the unforeseen resignation of a reigning monarch, they submit to abdication. Admittedly, old writers tend to be cut off from their desks mainly by dotage, disability, or death; they do not voluntarily accede to unnatural stoppage. Such instances of self-erasure are rare, and may apply only to those old writers who own the immaculate status of literary popes. More typically, the banishment of old writers derives almost ritually from external sources. How do old writers learn that they are, after all, old writers? By being told, named, classified.

Yet it has long been a credo among old writers (and perhaps among old readers too) that the idea of generations is facile and false; that yes, old writers are either remembered and read or not, and that the young in their turn must begin again the inborn progress of will under pressure of rapture. What unites writers (or so old writers believe) 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.

. . . .

 Aspiration is not the same as ambition. Ambition forgets mortality; old writers never do. Ambition wants a career; aspiration wants a room of one’s own. Ambition feeds on public attention; aspiration is impervious to crowds. Old writers in their youth understood themselves to be apprentices to masters superior in seasoned experience, and were ready to wait their turn in the hierarchy of recognition. In their lone and hardened way of sticking-to-it, they were unwaveringly industrious; networking, the term and the scheme, was unknown to them. In their college years, they might on occasion enroll in courses in “creative writing,” though unaware of the vapid redundancy of the phrase: courses presided over by defeated professors who had once actually published a novel and were thereby rendered reverential, but afterward were never heard from again. Old writers were spared (by the nonexistence of such things) the institutionalization of creative writing M.F.A. programs in the universities, taught by graduates of M.F.A. programs — a cycle of M.F.A. students becoming M.F.A. teachers teaching M.F.A. students who will in turn become M.F.A. teachers: a Möbius strip of job-­manufacture. Old writers in their youth were resolutely immured in their first novels, steadfastly enduring unworldly and self-chosen isolation; they shunned journalism, they shunned coteries, they shunned parties, they shunned the haunting of magazines for review assignments, they shunned editorial work, fearful of being drawn into the distracting pragmatism of publishing — magnetized instead by the lure of the Ding an sich.

. . . .

 Young writers, meanwhile, bring to mind those magically endowed characters in the fairy stories whom the youngest son meets on the way to his future: the man in the blindfold, the man with his ears tightly bandaged — because otherwise sight so powerful will see too unbearably far, and hearing so sensitive will be assailed by all the sounds of the earth. In the bottomless force of their seeming immortality, young writers are mercifully lent these blindfolds and ear muffs, and why? To shield them from what old writers have come to know: how things turn out. Old writers have the eyes and breadth of biographers, even when they are not literally so: they are witness to the trajectories of entire lives, the early flourishing and the latter-day fizzling, or else the unpromising seed and its surprising fruitfulness. Old writers have seen and heard the howls and wounds of the madness that failed recognition confers, and they have seen and heard the triumphal parades that the madness of great reputation allows.

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Bill for the tip.

Here’s a link to Cynthia Ozick’s books

Books in General

19 Comments to “Writers Old and Young: Staring Across the Moat”

  1. I sped-read through the paragraphs and got an overwhelming visual impression of a steaming pile of horse-s***.

  2. Very bad writing, whether she is old or young herself. And nonsense, to boot.

    Lots of writers die in the saddle, leaving hordes of lamenting readers behind.

    • I think she’s just musing about her own situation. She’s only a handful of weeks away from turning 87.

  3. Oh, good. I’m glad it wasn’t just me. I kept reading, thinking that I’d found something interesting about the differences in the writing experience between when you’re just starting out and when you’ve been at it for a while. Only instead, I got this sad impression that I’m supposed to think that because I’m no longer a “young” writer, that I’m an “old” writer, and therefore no longer should be writing….Honestly, I’m not sure what this article is trying to say to me.

  4. Yeah. Pretentious, and giving me the impression that someone was trying way to hard to find something profound to write about, but instead wrote a bunch of nonsense. Bleh.

  5. It is Cynthia Ozick who after a very long and very distinguished career, sent a manuscript to her publisher only to have it read by the new thing editor who didn’t know who she was, rejected the manuscript and told her to keep trying.

    “David Foster Wallace called Ozick one of the greatest living American writers.[8] She has been described as “the Athena of America’s literary pantheon,” the “Emily Dickinson of the Bronx,” and “one of the most accomplished and graceful literary stylists of her time.”[4]”

    She is 86 years old and still writing.

    • “…sent a manuscript to her publisher only to have it read by the new thing editor who didn’t know who she was, rejected the manuscript and told her to keep trying.”

      That could actually happen to any traditionally published writer at any time of life – certainly it must happen to mid-list writers with some frequency.

      At least she can self-publish now, regardless of what the new thing editors think.

      • Dean Wesley Smith talked about this a few times. He was still getting rejected 100 books into his career.

        • Dean Wesley Smith

          I had published over 35 novels with Pocket and got a form rejection from one young editor. So I picked up the phone and called the publisher friend of mine at Pocket and asked him why.

          Book was still rejected, after I sent it back, which was fine. But with respect and a nice letter, not from some junior editor right out of college. One of the many events that told me my days in traditional publishing were numbered.

      • When you’re under contract to your publisher, I suspect you think your name will be recognized by even junior editors.

  6. The idea that young writers are sheltered and blissful in their ignorance as opposed to the poor, beaten old writer is one god-awful bit of pessimism.

    I Am not young, but I suppose I am a ‘young’ writer experience wise and nothing so far has been fairy dust and roses. It;s a business and it’s hard and blunt sometimes. All business is.

    The problem is not grizzled old veterans and doe-eyed amateurs. It’s people who live int he real world and people who are skipping foolishly down the yellow brick road.

    Age and experience have nothing to do with willful ignorance.

    You either work your way through your career with your eyes open or your head in the sand.

    It’s a choice,

  7. Silly comments, mostly. This is an older writer who is looking into her soul and may well have something interesting to say about life experiences. But you need the experience from wider reading to get it.

    I rather expect that the negatives about older writers are personal and humble, while the comments about the young ones are tongue-in-cheek.

  8. As it turns out, I was just updating my author’s ages, for the Top 100 new releases of 2014. Below are the results for 2013 and 2014. As you can see, there are plenty of writers having success in the 65 and up age group in both years.

    Amazon Top 100 2013 – number in each age bracket
    34 or Less – 3.0
    35 to 44 – 21.0
    45 to 54 – 36.0
    55 to 64 – 18.0
    65 Plus – 22.0

    Amazon Top 100 2014
    34 or Less – 2.0
    35 to 44 – 37.0
    45 to 54 – 24.0
    55 to 64 – 15.0
    65 Plus – 22.0

    Here’s the original blog about the 2013 Top 100 writer’s ages, for anyone who is curious about how age intersects with gender, genre, pricing, and so forth. Since the subject is of some considerable interest, and facts are scarce on the ground, I thought PG would be ok with a blog link.

    http://dodecahedronbooks.blogspot.ca/2014/05/amazon-top-100-kindle-books-analysis-of.html

  9. Cynthia Ozick is a brilliant and distinguished writer who has produced moving and lasting work. She is permitted her observations; some of them are spot-on; all of them are worth thinking about. Not much point in being reflexively defensive and dismissive just because you’re not staring down 90.

  10. The link points to the new republic and doesn’t appear to be the same article.

  11. Hey! You kids! Get off my lawn!

  12. As an old writer, I have to say that there is a joy in helping younger writers when one is more wizened if not completely wise, but the idea that you are dried up or abdicating, is nonsense. If you were born with the fire, it remains, just as sexual appreciation lives forever in those who had it to begin with, regardless of age [ask anyone who lives/works in a retirement or assisted living situ]

    On the other hand. depression can be a very real fog that also comes over not just the young and middle aged, out of seeming nowhere, but also across the minds of elders. Not speaking of chronic depression, but incipient, that might be hormonal, or brain chemical in nature, or change in living circumstance, for instance. That sense of low mood can cause even a sprite to be speaking dooms-say.

    Gloom is not a natural feature of age. Rather, I think, in many and even most, it is not gloom that leads, but poignancy of each day.

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