by Kaulie Lewis
This week Alexander Chee published an essay in the new Literary Hub simply titled “Against Wunderkinds.” Chee’s premise is simple: don’t be a prodigy. Or, at least, know it’s okay, even preferable, not to be a prodigy. And if specialness is what late-in-life emerging writers crave and fear they’ve missed, he reminds them that “the irony of the wunderkind is that the status is typically conferred on a talent that is considered rare . . . [but] the myth’s popularity is such that the real rare bird is the writer who debuts after 40.”
That’s not to say that that’s the way it should be, that this rarity is a boon to late bloomers, but rather that the wunderkind-centric worlds of writing and publishing are finally being exposed as both unfair and unrealistic. “Increasingly, authors who’ve debuted at age 40 or older have pushed back on this idea that talent matters most when talent is young—or that an emerging writer is only a writer under 40,” writes Chee, and he cites our sister site The Millions, our editor-in-chief, Sonya Chung, and even Bloom itself as leading figures in the post-40 resistance.
This spring has brought good news for several Bloomers. There’s 44-year-old Helen Macdonald, whose memoir H is for Hawk won the Samuel Johnson prize for nonfiction last fall and has been climbing best-seller lists ever since. Electric Literature recently interviewed Macdonald about the challenges of writing about grief and nature, finding the balance between wild and tame, and “what the poet Wordsworth would have called joy—joy and wonder. That’s at the heart of what I love about the natural world.” There’s also Anne Enright, who, though not technically a Bloomer, first achieved breakthrough success when she won the Man Booker prize at 45 and is now releasing her novel The Green Road to early praise. The New York Times called it, “in the best sense of the word, a strange novel,” and James Wood reviewed it for the New Yorker. Of course, we’re particularly fond of Enright’s interview with The Millions, where she declares that “for the first time in my writing life, I think the future is going to be a better balanced one. The Irish tradition has been very male heavy. It’s going to see these younger women coming through, and they don’t give a damn. It seems that something is over. Some idea of Irishness that doesn’t involve being female is over.”
Then there’s Nell Zink, something of a literary rebel, whose road to publishing success is one of the strangest we’ve heard about. She published her first novel, The Wallcreeper, last year at age 50 but had been writing for many years before that, though she rarely showed her work to anyone and frequently deleted entire novels. After striking up an unlikely long-distance friendship with Jonathan Franzen over the plight of endangered birds, Zink wrote her second novel, Mislaid, in three weeks and soon found a publisher. This week it was reviewed in The New York Times. Kathryn Schulz explains in the New Yorker what makes this debut so distinctive: “the outsider status, the unusual taste, the hint of a hoax: all the qualities that make Zink’s life story so distinctive work remarkably well on the page.”
This month also marks the 750th birthday of Dante Alighieri, one of the most influential Bloomers in literary history. Though it’s difficult to know exactly at what age he wrote and published his Divine Comedy, he was certainly in his late 40s when he began the Inferno, and the Paradiso was most likely published posthumously, after he died in his early 50s. Over at the New Yorker, John Kleiner attempts to explain exactly how much Dante means to Italian readers. His work is taught in their middle schools, read in their Senate, read in the International Space Station, and was recently praised by Pope Francis. But at the same time, Kleiner writes, there’s something subversive about il Poeta, and the Comedy can easily be read as his own work of literary and cultural resistance. “Dante is, as a writer, unmistakably anti-authoritarian. He looks around and what he sees is hypocrisy, incompetence, and corruption. And so he strikes out, not just at the Popes, whom he turns upside down and stuffs in a hole, but also at Florence’s political leaders, whom he throws into a burning tomb, and his own teacher, whom he sets running naked across scorching sand.”
Dante may have helped to define the course of Italian literature, but he’s not the only Bloomer to create or define a tradition. The genres of science fiction, horror and fantasy writing can all trace their roots back to the work of late-blooming writers. Charles Perrault published the fantastic Tales from Mother Goose at 69, Bram Stoker released Dracula at 50, and Jules Verne, though not technically a Bloomer, came to science fiction relatively late, at age 36. That their work inspired, directly or indirectly, much of modern culture almost goes without saying, but Debra Eve, the author of the Later Bloomer blog, thinks we should say more—or at least think more—about it. She challenges her readers to “note the times you encounter a fairy tale, vampire, horror story, or science fiction reference” in a week and then take a moment to appreciate the long-lasting power of Bloomer writers.
These Bloomers, from Dante to Bram Stoker to Nell Zink, cover 750 years and nearly every genre, and no two of their experiences are particularly similar. In his Lit Hub essay Alexander Chee considers one aspect of their creativity that may help to explain why these writers bloomed late and with such success. He summarizes the work of Malcolm Gladwell and David Galenson to conclude that “the late bloomer . . . was no myth but the product of a particular kind of mind—an experimental innovator who worked incrementally,” fundamentally unlike prodigies who “were conceptual in their approach, having plans in their mind that arrived fully formed.” Once we shift from believing “that the prodigy and the late bloomer are fundamentally the same and that late blooming is simply genius under conditions of market failure” to an understanding of Bloomers’ essentially different but equally valuable talent, it becomes even more exciting to take up arms in the Bloomer resistance.