Posted by Nick Curley
Today I turn twenty-six years old. It’s only been my birthday for ten hours, but so far this has proven the best year of my life. In the hopes of finding inspiration, and satisfaction for gnawing trivia, I looked up various names upon my bookshelf, to see what they were up to at/by the age of twenty-six. Let’s keep it chronological, in blocks of text: us mid-twenties types can think in lists and narratives, all at once.
In the nineteenth century, people lived shorter lives and the literary field was comparatively smaller (which is to say: wealthier, more cloistered). Alexander Pushkin attended a prestigious academy in St. Petersburg whose first major poems at twenty-one were in amongst the in crowd. Gogol was a semi-protege of Pushkin who got published right around the same age. Stendhal finished a biography of Napoleon at thirty-five and his essay “On Love” by age thirty-nine. By that point had already fought in the Napoleonic Wars and was enjoying a bureaucrat’s career as a French consul in Trieste. He would not pen novels until the end of his life, writing most of them within the span of one or two months. Edith Wharton, who actually lived to be seventy-five years old, published nothing until she completed a study on gardening at thirty-three. John Keats was dead at 25, after what’s called his golden year, in which he wrote most of what we know of him. Wilfred Owen: also dead at 25, only six poems published while living. The rest, among them “Dolce et Decorum Est”, emerge posthumously.
Then the Modernists, that grand old slab of humanity. Orson Welles directed his RKO production of The War of the Worlds at 23, panicking America. He directs Citizen Kane at 25, it’s released on May 1st, 1941, five days before his twenty-sixth birthday. Borges writes his first book of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires, at 23, then releasing many pieces for lit journals through his mid-twenties. Virginia Woolf worked as a paid journalist from the age of eighteen, but did not publish her first novel, The Voyage Out, until she was thirty-two (on her half-brother’s imprint!). Woolf wrote many devastating lines, perhaps none fiercer and more wrenching than one closing out her suicide note written to her husband in 1941: “If anybody could have saved me it would have been you.”
James Joyce wrote Stephen Hero, his precursor “first draft” of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man between 1904-1906 (ages 22-24). He released his poetry collection Chamber Music at 25 in 1907, the same year he wrote his love poem Giacomo Joyce. Flann O’Brien published At Swim-Two-Birds at 28. He wrote The Third Policeman between the ages of 28 and 29, though it wouldn’t see the presses until 1968, two years after his death. Samuel Beckett was printing academic essays and helping Joyce research Finnegan’s Wake by the time he was twenty-three, and published his treatise on Proust at 24. At age 26 Beckett wrote his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, which was rejected by so many publishers that it was abandoned and not published until four years after his death. Ernest Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises at 26, having filed many stories for The Toronto Star and other newspapers in his early twenties, after having already gone to war and logged some serious fishing. William Faulkner released his first short story to the University of Mississippi lit journal at 21, then selling nothing after that before a surge at 27, wherein he published sixteen short stories and his first novel, Soldier’s Pay.
Post war everyone gets periodical gigs, types in the daytime, and smokes copiously. Ralph Ellison began selling book reviews and short stories at 23, living off them and his wife’s income until completing Invisible Man at 38. Flannery O’Connor published Wise Blood at 27, having released ten short stories from age 21 on. Kurt Vonnegut’s first short story ran in Collier’s at 28, then published his first novel Player Piano at 30. In his late twenties he filed a one-line story for his employer Sports Illustrated: “The horse jumped over the fucking fence”, before promptly quitting. Joan Didion wrote Run, River in her late twenties while working at Vogue: it’s published when she’s 29. Norman Mailer published The Naked and the Dead in 1948 at age 25. Saul Bellow was a merchant marine until he was 29, at which point he completed his first novel Dangling Man. At 33 he won a Guggenheim Fellowship, moved to France, and wrote The Adventures of Augie March. Toni Morrison was a ripe old thirty-nine when The Bluest Eye (based on a short story written while teaching at Howard) was released in 1970.
Here comes the baby boom shakedown, reeling further into the seventies and eighties, where a lot of good stuff gets published without always going noticed. Philip Roth publishes Goodbye, Columbus at 26. Philip K. Dick sold his first short story at 23 and first novel at 27. Don DeLillo was a copywriter for most of his twenties, and began writing his first novel at 30: it was published under the name Americana in 1971 when he was 35. Donald Barthelme’s first sold short story came at 30 while director of a Houston art gallery. Bret Easton Ellis published Less Than Zero at 21, it had been adapted into a film by the time he was 23. He published The Rules of Attraction at 27 and American Psycho, the story of a homicidal stockbroker said to be inspired by his father, at age 31. Margaret Atwood did it by 22, publishing poetry written during her studies at Radcliffe.
Haruki Murakami was a drama student and record store clerk who is said to have written no fiction at all until he was 29. He claims to have realized he was capable of it upon going to a baseball game in Tokyo and seeing an American ex-pat hit a double. 29 was also the age at which Jonathan Franzen published his debut, The Twenty-Seventh City. I’ve always thought that a pretty weak title: doesn’t roll at all. Jonathan Lethem publishes his first short at 25 and several more into his late twenties, jettisoning his first novel, Gun with Occasional Music, at age 30. Michael Chabon’s first novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was his UC-Irvine master’s thesis, sent in secret to a literary agent by his professor. It was published at 25, and he spent the next five years writing a 1,600 page novel deemed unreadable by his publisher. He then spent the next five after that completing Wonder Boys, a book about an author following up his successful first novel with a sprawling, impossibly long second one. Zadie Smith wrote most of White Teeth at 22 while in a master’s program at Cambridge University. It caused something of a bidding war among publishers and was printed when she was 25. Her less renowned follow-up The Autograph Man was released when she was 27.
What does any of this prove about what any of us will achieve? Next to nothing. The year at which one gets published has little to do with when they write, when they wake up, when they find their voice, or when anyone cares to listen. It’s a pleasant pressure to place on one’s self to see if you have what they have, but tallying up the names and dates was just an exercise to pass the time. Younger is not always better: prodigies tend to burn fast. As this list would suggest, most of the great novels as we know them were written by people older than 26. This is said not to wallow, but to offer hope. I have to get going. Part of the deal of making it to twenty-six is that you perform reckless, senseless abuses upon yourself, namely yoga. That said: do not deny the temptation towards inspiration, and do not undervalue a fire placed squarely between your buttocks. If anyone reading this has a great novel in them, we could really use one here and now.