On Why and When Fiction Writers First Publish

“If you don’t make masterpiece by time you twenty five you nothing,” went the advice of a drunk literature professor. I was a sophomore. The nineteenth century authors I admired had all first published before the age the professor put forward. Twenty five became the longitudinal line where my flat world ended. Twenty-five was crossed without masterpiece or incident. I found solace in the biographies of contemporary writers, most of whom first published at an older age.

Why the age difference from one century to the next?

To begin I posit that the apprenticeship period of a writer, before a publishable novel is completed, lasts approximately eight years and involves three components: 1) lots of writing, much of it crap, an unfinished or rejected opus or three, a novel that was talked about more then it was ever written, some short stories; 2) A fair amount of reading, not from any cannon in particular, enough to get a sense of what is out there; 3) Life experience—bullfighting and shooting heroin, sure—but more having lived and become aware of one’s existence in a way that can be processed many many times over to be used in stories. The healthy realization that instead of writing the greatest book ever one should focus on a good story one can tell well can be filed under the third component. Factor in necessary talent and the budding writer is on his or her way to a literary debut.

(The debut may never take place and occasionally occurs after less time).

Tolstoy completed his apprenticeship young in part because he was mind numbingly rich—he lived on a Rhode Island sized farm that was worked by slaves—and had lots of free time. By free time I mean the time to work as an around the clock unpaid writer, which in Tolstoy’s case meant he was able to pump out short stories thick enough to qualify as assault weapons by 23. Dostoevsky’s provenance was more middle class, his father was a doctor to the indigent, but a middle class that came with amenities far greater then full cable and a second car. The Western world was less equitable with a lot of poor people available to do chores and errands that would be done by the budding author today. Dostoevsky too, pre-gulag, had his free time, first publishing to great fanfare at 23.

For those with access to it, education was better in the nineteenth century. The richest writers had private tutors. The writers who went to school, Balzac, Dickens intermittently, received better more thorough educations then are readily available today. Memorization of poems was central to understanding literature, languages were rigorously taught, correspondence and the discipline to write constantly were imperatives. Without looking far beyond the routines that were handed to them as adolescents, they fulfilled large parts of their apprenticeship.

The broadly romanticized lost generation of the 1920s first published at a slightly later age. The middle class was larger, education was more universal. They came from a range of households and schoolings—Dos Passos, loaded, boarding school and college; Hemingway, not so loaded, public school and no college. But the available education was still better then today’s. Reading was more a core part of curriculums, correspondence remained essential, Greek and Latin were taught. And it is not that I believe a classical education is best, simply that writing is an exercise in shaping language and early knowledge of its anatomies feeds when a person starts thinking as a writer. The challenge was finding the time to write, which is part of why they all went to Paris—still reeling from the WWI, economically brittle Paris was cheap. The ability to live well for not much gave them the incentive and time to finish their first works. Getting to Paris meant time working and traveling and that interval tacked on about two years to their debuts.

Why and when people published in the 19th century was mostly a matter of pedigree. Why and when people first published in the 20th century was a matter of cheap rent. From Paris, to the West and East Village, to Berlin, writers roamed much of the Western world looking for cities in economic decline where they could work unperturbed.

Today education is essentially universal, but of mixed quality. In the United States the solution is a masters degree in writing where the differing levels of education can be calibrated, the safety of a campus buffering young writers from economic ebbs and flows. A student at NYU or Columbia can live in currently unaffordable New York thanks to subsidized low rent and money from a job teaching undergraduates once or twice a week. Because the youngest a person would likely enter grad school is 22, masters programs have pushed the age of debuts up as people fulfill the requirements of their apprenticeship at a later age.

I am ignoring will. Irregardless of provenance, schooling and available time, where the writer has had the will and talent he or she has published. Kafka had a full time job at an insurance company. The Chilean writer Roberto Bolano, the son of a truck driver, traveled the world, holding jobs no more exalted then security guard. Both men wrote at night and published late in life, their reputations propelled far into the future by the forces of their wills. Black writers of the mid-century, Baldwin and Wright, wrote their first works in the vacuum of a society closed off from their voices. They established places for themselves with their wills. Masters programs have had the positive effect of honoring and financing the bright talents who earlier pushed forward alone. But the rest must pay, a lot, and the programs have had the inverse effect of excluding those of mixed or still growing talent and little funds, and not just from an education, but from direct avenues to agents and publishing houses.

A corrective mechanism exists. During economic downturns the plights of the excluded are chronicled and sensationalized in pulp. Pulp’s goal of titillating is easier to achieve then literature’s goal of moving the reader. The apprenticeship is shorter and can respond to social changes more swiftly. New York currently has 800,000 millionaires and the poorest urban county in the nation, the Bronx, splitting the city between a community who can afford graduate schools and comes from a decent education and another which comes from stunted public schools, 20 percent and up unemployment and high crime. In the Gilded Age, when the Lost Generation fled to Europe, pulp was a local reaction by those who could not afford a ticket out of the country. The best pulp works are considered literature. The rest are no better then the genre exercises they aspire to be.

On fold out tables on 125th Street in Harlem, near the court houses on Chambers Street, on Fulton Street in Brooklyn and on Third Avenue in the Bronx, a new pulp is sold under the moniker of urban literature. A handful of titles have sold in the hundreds of thousands; Borders and Barnes and Noble, depending on the store location, dedicate sections to the genre. I have attempted reading some urban literature and found them on the whole unmoving and conventionally titillating; but I am open to attempting more titles. I contacted the office of Triple Crown Publications, which specializes in the genre, wanting to know what the average age of their authors was. The answer was between 20 and 30, the youngest, Mallori McNeal, was 16 when she first published. If literature is what Ms. McNeal wants to write, a couple drafts and some experience from now, she’ll be 24.