Sunday, November 25, 2012

How Late Does a Bloomer Have to Be to Make a Late Bloomer List? Not That Late.

       The new list of late bloomers -- "10 Great Literary Late Bloomers"  -- just posted on the internet has me wondering: How late does a bloomer have to be to make one of these lists? Not so late, it seems.

Emily Temple
Emily Temple
    The current roll call was compiled by Emily Temple, the literary editor at Flavorpill, an internet city guide started in 2000. According to Temple's Linked-In profile, she graduated from Middlebury College in 2008.

    Which may explain why most of the writers on her list are just barely showing their grey.

      One of them  -- Anthony Burgess -- was a boyish 39 when he made his fiction debut. (Oh, okay, he was 45 when he hit the literary jackpot with "Clockwork Orange," but that's still younger than all but two of our U.S. presidents).
     The older I get, I guess, the higher the age a late bloomer needs to be.

Laura Ingalls Wilder
     Five more on Temple's list (Deborah Eisenberg, William Burroughs, Helen DeWitt and Raymond Chandler) were only in their early forties when they bloomed on the literary scene. And two more (Charles Bukowski and the Marquis de Sade) were barely into their fifties.  Literary late bloomers? I tend to think of them as writers who either started or found success in their fifties and up.

     So, yes, for me the last two on Temple's list definitely quality: Donald Ray Pollack was 55 when he debuted with a short story collection and 58 when he published his first novel last year. And, Laura Ingalls Wilder -- the only silver-haired among the lot -- was without a doubt a late bloomer. She published her first novel -- "Little House in the Book Woods" when she was 64.

      Temple says she was inspired to create her list of literary not-so-late bloomers after she discovered a "cool website dedicated to the discussion of writers who published their first major work at age 40 or later." The website, called Bloom, is indeed cool, a place "where you'll encounter the work and lives of authors ... who bloomed in their own good time."

     But consider this: That site was founded by Sonya Chung, a novelist who once told an interviewer that she considered herself a late bloomer because she only began writing in "her late twenties." 

Photo credit: Robin Holland
Sonya Chung
     Chung is also the force behind the inspiring "Post-40 Bloomers" series at The Millions, which was launched in 2011 in the wake of the outcry over that year's New Yorker "20 Under 40" list. "Why do the kids get so much of the good stuff?" asked Martha Southgate in "Older and Wiser," also posted on The Millions.

     Chung wanted writers over 40 to get some good stuff, too. In her first column introducing the Post-40 series, Chung said she appreciated Malcolm Gladwell's distinctions among "late bloomers, late starters and late-dicoverereds," in his popular New Yorker article on "Late Bloomers," but admited her own bias was toward late starters -- "people who have lived a whole life, or two, or three before seriously devoting themselves to write a book."

     But it's hard to imagine that those she and others have profiled in the "Post-40 Bloomers" series have had time to live three lifetimes. Like the writers on Temple's list, most were already successful by their forties and early fifties:

     * Spencer Reece who had been submitting his poetry for 13 years and was rejected some 300 times over before both a publisher and The New Yorker recognized his work when he was...40.

    * Walker Percy who published "The Moviegoer," at 44 
    * Novelists David Abrams and Anna Keesey who were 49 when they published their first novels
    * Mary Costello who finally found success with her short stories in her mid-40s
    * Short story writer Susan Starr Richards who published her first collection at 49 
    * Isak Dinesen whose literary star started to ascend at 50, just as her physical deterioration accelerated
    * David Orozco whose "debut" collection at 52 was 16 years in the making

     To be fair, the Post-40 series hasn't completely overlooked writers who have achieved success in their late fifties, sixties and seventies. The fact that one of them didn't actually live long enough to see that success was a bit disconcerting. But let's not quibble. We late late bloomers will take all the role models we can get:

William Gay
   William Gay, a self-taught wrier who finally managed to publish two short stories at age 55 and then was offered a book contract for his novel the next year

     * Stephen Wetta who took 56 years to learn to write in the voice of his 12-year-old self
Harriet Doerr
     * Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa who began working on his one and only novel, "The Leopard," when he was 58 and finished it when he was 60 (alas, only to die before it was published posthumously the next year)
     * Mary Wesley who found success publishing young adult fiction in her 70s

     *  Harriet Doerr who won the National Book Award for her first novel when she was 74

     And I'll give this to Chung: She was on to something when she deliberately left out the word "late" and "older" in her "Post-40" title:  "Late relative to what and according to whose definition of early or on-time?" she asked.

     Indeed. Will I still think of Laura Ingalls Wilder as a late bloomer when I am in my seventies and eighties? 
     Perhaps not. Clearly, late is in the age of the beholder.

     10 Great LIterary Late Bloomers