Older and better

Critic David Kipen talks about the publishing industry's youth fetish and his list of 50 great authors over 50.


Laura Miller
December 5, 2000 1:00AM (UTC)

Call them crass, call them simplistic, call them gimmicky -- the fact is people love lists, especially best-of lists, and book lovers are no exception. One of the few ways to heat up our usually tepid national literary conversation is to issue a list of great books or authors, then lean back and wait for the hate mail to arrive from the fans of whoever got left off.

So when David Kipen, book editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, finds himself miffed over the biases in various popular literary lists, he knows that the best response is a "counterlist." Kipen polled his readers to compile the Chronicle Western 100 -- lists of the best fiction and nonfiction written in or about the Western United States, thereby striking a blow against the Eastern provincialism of the book business and most of the media that covers it. And recently, he polled the winners of that survey to assemble a list celebrating the many literary greats who have "more talent than hair, and smoother prose than skin": The Chronicle 50 Over 50 list of American writers in their prime. Salon telephoned Kipen at his San Francisco office to learn more.

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What gave you the idea for 50 Over 50?

I was looking at last summer's fiction issue of the New Yorker, which had the theme 20 Under 40. Around the same time the London Observer had done 21 Writers for the 21st Century, and a few years back Granta had done a 20 best novelists under 40 list in both England and the U.S. The idea of listing young writers was in the air, and I wanted to punch a hole in it.

What bothers you about it?

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It's only half the story. It's all very fine to call attention to young writers who haven't been noticed yet, but for one thing a lot of those young writers have been noticed. For another, what makes young writers intrinsically more interesting than old writers, or older writers? Especially older writers who haven't yet gotten the recognition they deserve. One thing I made a point of doing when I was soliciting names for the list was to ask for writers who may not have found their champions yet but still really deserve them.

I've got nothing against young writers. A lot of my favorite writers are young writers. But people get so crazed by that lust for the next photogenic young bard that we grow blinded to other, frequently better writers who not only do a superior job of reflecting the lives we live today but look more like us and less like matinee idols.

Who compiled your list?

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We'd conducted a reader poll of the 100 most noteworthy figures of 20th century writing west of the Rockies. We did a list of fiction and one of nonfiction, which was itself a reaction to the Modern Library list that came out in 1999. That gave me a ready-made jury, of which only half, alas, are still alive, all of whom are really smart people. I didn't particularly want a list of West Coast writers, but I trust all these writers implicitly and if they were going to give me a slightly more West Coast-skewed list than I might otherwise get, then that would be a case of turnabout as fair play considering how Eastern-skewing most of the other lists we get fed tend to be.

Were any of the people whose opinions you requested under 50?

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Yes, there was David Guterson, who gave us kind of a sour answer. He wrote: "Fortunately in the real world of my life as a reader, I never have to choose the five best American writers over 50 and I'm not going to do so now, either, as a contribution to this exercise in the pages of the Chronicle. Why should I? What purpose would it serve? How would it contribute to the lives of people who peruse its contents? A list like this is inherently reductive and hypothetical in a fruitless manner, not even thought-provoking." We got a letter from a reader saying, "Well, lists have certainly been good to him!"

Because he was chosen for the Granta list of the 20 best novelists under 40.

That's right. And the other person who responded negatively was Ethan Canin, who was also on that list.

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Maybe it's because they were put on a list themselves and it bothers them.

Or perhaps because the lists they were on were the sort of lists that our list is a reaction against.

Though you don't see them refusing to participate in the lists that they were on themselves.

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No, you don't see them taking themselves out of the running for the Granta or New Yorker list.

It's conceivable that someone has and we just don't know about it -- but those two people didn't. Your list is contrarian precisely because the tendency is to make lists of under-40 writers.

One thing that struck me once I got the idea and started thinking about how to do it was why has it taken me four or five years of reading these damn lists to even notice? It's like something out of "Logan's Run" rather than respectable journalism.

Why do you think there's so much fascination with young writers?

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There's one very simple reason why magazines tend to favor young, good-looking writers: Faces like that are likelier to sell magazines than craggy, weathered, seasoned faces, even if those older faces give us the books we need. It reflects the publishing industry in general, with its increasing emphasis on the snazzy jacket photo. I just read that a publisher shelled out 20 grand just to get the perfect jacket photo for Candace Bushnell.

Do you think readers care as much about youth in writers as the publishing industry does?

Categorically no, with the qualification that the readers that publishers most want now, or at least the readers that publishers nowadays most despair of reaching, are themselves young. While publishers are only too happy to sell books by the yard by any mature writer you can name, I think they're worried that the current generation is not going to read and that we've seen the last of a well-read America. Overall, though, no, readers don't give a damn how old the author is as long as the book is good.

You don't think they look at the author photo and maybe decide to buy a first novel on the basis of the glamour of the author? You don't think that affects them? It's remarkable how hard it is for us to understand that if there's anything more rare than beauty, it's talent, and the chance that both are going to occur in the same person is pretty remote.

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When I was young and stupid I used to look at fly-leaves and judge not only by the appearance of the author, but by the marital status ...

Really? Which status did you prefer?

Single, of course.

Because?

Because obviously I could read the book, and the author would be brilliant and lonely, and of course it would only be destiny that I had plucked her book from the shelf instead of somebody else's, and we'd retire to a home in the mountains.

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So you're talking about women authors?

Oh, of course. Male writers could come in all ages and marital statuses! But I'd like to think that I'm a little more mature now.

So you don't think age means that much to readers, but how do you think the fixation on youth affects the younger writers themselves or the publishing world in general?

It has a lot to do with which writers get sent out on tour and which don't, the assumption being that young, great-looking writers are likelier to get their photos in the newspaper saying so-and-so is reading this week. I think it affects who gets booked on talk shows, although the more insidious influence there is talk shows' preference for nonfiction, since nobody knows how to interview a novelist anymore. What do you think?

One thing I notice in reading a lot of first novels is that editors will rush to publish a work that's not really ready for prime time. We're talking about what was once the almost proverbial first novel that wound up stuffed in a drawer somewhere because the writer couldn't sell it or realized that it wasn't good enough.

Most accomplished writers have a book like that and they'll tell you that they'd never, ever show it to anyone. Then the writer would go on to do a second novel which would be the first one he or she published. Nowadays, that first novel gets published anyway because the writer is so young or has a really great life story, and the editors and publishers don't want to wait until the writer has fully learned his or her craft. This very flawed, sort-of apprenticeship work gets published and people think that this is the best that writer can do.

And then maybe the opportunity doesn't arise for the second, better novel to come out.

Or the second novel comes out and everyone who read the first one takes a pass on it.

You can imagine an alternate universe where this newly discovered piece of Jack Kerouac juvenalia, "Orpheus Emerged," did get published and as a result "On the Road" didn't. There's even a sidebar in this about what terrible short shrift second novels get because everyone wants to discover the next big thing. At the Chronicle we periodically talk about endowing a prize for the best second novel. There are so many prizes for first novels that it gets our contrarian juices flowing.

There's a kind of crossover syndrome from the world of rock music, because usually, with a rock band, their first album is their best. The opposite is the case with most writers, especially the very good ones. It often takes several books for them to really hit their stride. Writing is something that takes a long time to learn to do. Every writer says so. This focus on the first novel and getting the book out while they're still young and thin puts the emphasis on what tends to be the weakest work of someone's career at a point when they're really trying to make a reputation and needed to ramp up more slowly.

One case that comes to mind is Michael Cunningham. His first book isn't even listed on his subsequent novels. I've been told in no uncertain terms not to even bring it up with him because he's so ashamed of it.

Another thing that happens is that younger writers think that since they've made it they don't even need to work on their craft. So the youth fetish is a disservice to both younger and older writers. How have your readers responded to 50 Over 50?

Even the circulation department has been hearing from readers saying how much they like it, which never happens. I do a bunch of public appearances at luncheons and the like, and when I outline the project to people you can almost hear a collective sigh of gratitude. People are just so sick of this mindless glorification of people who are my age -- 37 -- and younger.

It's ironic to look at an author like Charles Frazier ["Cold Mountain"] who, if you were to strictly observe the kind of parameters of these under-40 lists, wouldn't have been on the radar screen at all.

Although it is easier on him because there is this bias in favor of the way men age over the way women age. You have to wonder if "Cold Mountain" had been written by a woman named Charlotte Frazier of the same age, would it have been as well-received?

Or even if he hadn't been a horse trainer or had such an interesting life.

Yes, there's also that subtle bias against people who have written wonderful books behind which there are no cute stories. How mediagenic is it to go on television or sit for a newspaper interview and say, "Well, the story behind this book is that I went to my desk every day for five years and then I had a book"? That's nowhere near as interesting as pulling yourself from the wreckage of a plane in the Arctic wilderness and dragging your way back to civilization.

You know, what you're really saying is that this is driven by the press, the media, people like us. Publishing is doing this stuff because it's the best way to get coverage by TV, print, magazines, radio, whatever.

I think that's true and I try to strike a blow against it by running pictures of the oldest, ugliest writers I can find.


Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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