by Kaulie Lewis
If retweets and social media shares can be counted as a sure sign of popular favor, then this month may mark a new interest in late-blooming writers, or at least in infographics that measure exactly how late they bloomed. Blinkbox Books has created one that compares the age of more than 60 authors when they found success, and it quickly spread from literary site to literary site. Of course, “success” has many definitions, and the graphic comes with a convenient feature that allows users to sort authors by their age at first publication and age when they hit their “breakthroughs.” Bloom readers may be interested to see exactly how late some writers began publishing (Richard Adams was 53 when he published his first book, Watership Down) but also to track the belated success of many writers who had early but relatively unremarked debuts (Jack Kerouac and F Scott Fitzgerald both published in their early 20s but didn’t find popularity until their third or fourth books). As Vox summarizes, “what this chart should help you see is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to writing a novel. Some writers will publish young. Some will publish later in life. The point is to remember that no matter which writer you are—or hope to become—there are plenty of literary giants you can look to as role models.”
One of those potential role models is the short-story writer and Bloomer Edith Pearlman, whose latest collection Honeydew has drawn considerable praise, including a review from The New York Times Book Review in which she’s cited as “one of the most essential short story visionaries of our time.” This is not to say that her genius for the form was always appreciated: there was a full 27 years between her first story publication and the debut of her first collection. Her patience and diligence are nothing if not admirable, and the attention she’s drawing now, at 78, is certainly well deserved. Even so, her perspective on those years of private writing is perhaps even more interesting: as she once told The Boston Globe, “It’s very important for a writer to be unnoticed. As quiet and unnoticed as possible.”
Another potential role model falls into the early-publication, late-recognition category: photographer Ken Schles, who the Los Angeles Review of Books profiled in preparation for the rerelease of his first book, Invisible City. Though Schles doesn’t qualify for true Bloomer status—Invisible City was first published in 1988, when he was 28—the book was something of a cult title and was out of print for over twenty years. Now it’s being republished with a companion work, Night Walk, composed of previously unseen work from the same period in Schles’s life. Together the two books are an example of the continuous nature of creativity, as art produced early in life accumulates greater significance with the passing of time, in this case decades.
An author who can’t quite be cited as a role model but who is coming back into the spotlight is Kyril Bonfiglioli. His Mortdecai series, the first of which was published in 1973, when he was 45, has been adapted into a movie starring Johnny Depp. Though the film is getting some questionable reviews—“Oh, great . . . more of Johnny Depp pretending to be a character actor. That’s what the world needed.”—the series itself seems to warrant further consideration, and Bonfiglioli’s life story is both stranger and more tragic than any biography we’d ever hope to live.
And now for an anniversary celebration: The Castle of Otranto, written by Horace Walpole in 1764 and widely considered the first Gothic novel, turns 250 this year. Carrie Frye has written a brief biography of Walpole, who wrote the book at 50 and possibly under the influence of laudanum (and, in his time, what writer wasn’t under that influence?), for Longreads, and argues compellingly for the book’s importance: “If Gothic literature had a family tree, its twisted gnarled branches chock-full of imperiled, swooning heroines and mysterious monks, with ghosts who sit light on the branches, and Frankenstein’s monster who sits heavy, with troops of dwarves, and winking nuns, and stunted, mostly nonflammable babies, at its base would sit Horace Walpole’s Castle. (Presumably with some lightning flickering dangerously nearby.)” While single-handedly creating a new literary genre may be a ludicrously lofty goal, there’s plenty to learn from Walpole’s dedication to his own aesthetic and obsessions, however out of their time they happened to be.
Our celebration of Bloomers in general has been getting some positive attention: Flavorwire recently posted an article “In Praise of Late Bloomers,” and cited our author list as “a fascinating collection of bright lights,” each a model in their own right. As Elisabeth Donnelly put it, “The advantage to publishing a first book, or experiencing the first flush of success in your 40s or later is that by then you’ve already lived a life. We value our literary elders, because we know that their insights, their powers of observation, and their wisdom grows as they age.”
Last but not least, we’ll leave you with some of Ira Glass’s wisdom on the nature of good taste, creative growth, and the importance of patience and persistence for creative success. His emphasis on the universality of beginner’s struggles is particularly reassuring, as is his insistence on the power of work to pull us out of that first phase. After all, each of our Bloomer role models is ultimately an artist who worked faithfully over many years, practicing and improving their art, and we would all do well to follow their examples.