A Few More Words on Ageism, or the Loneliness of the Middle-Aged Debut Novelist

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I wrote a brief thread on this same idea, but after an unruly night of sleep (thanks to my elderly dog) I decided to expand on these ideas. One thing you’ll learn about me, whether here or in my novel: I often have more to say.

I’m about to be a debut novelist, and a decidedly middle-aged one at that. But really, in terms of my writing career, I am a young writer. PANORAMA, while it’s my first novel, is my third book.

Whenever the subject of publishing a novel comes up, someone will mention a statistic: 90 percent of writers who publish a first book never publish a second. I’m grateful that I’m already past that hurdle.

Mississippi author Larry Brown in 1994

But I can’t help but hear that comment as a kind of inculcated ageism that surrounds the debut novel. A Harry Crews blurb on Facing the Music, the debut collection of Mississippi’s Larry Brown, ended this way: “Talent has struck.” Well maybe it did.

But it was definitely not the kind of talent we’re used to thinking about, the absurd supernatural gifts that allow a 19-year-old to hit a baseball 500 feet, or take off from the foul line extended on a fast break dunk.

Talent in the literary sense isn’t talent so much as it is hard work. Larry wrote hundreds of stories and several novels before Shannon Ravenel, then of Algonquin Books, saw a story of his in North American Review. She put together Facing the Music from a box of nearly 160 stories that Larry sent to her office from his home in Tula. He was 37 when it first appeared.

The quote is attributed to Seneca. “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Picasso’s take was this: “Inspiration exists, but it must find us working.”

I have no idea what the future of Panorama will hold, except for this: I’m not going to be on anyone’s 30 under 30, or 40 under 40 list. And I’m grateful for that. I couldn’t have written this book when I was 25; I tried to write it when I was 36 and failed. I wrote two other bad novels that are on my hard drive, novels whose plots are best summarized as he died, and then she died, or vice versa. But if anyone wants an essay on the best middle-aged novelists of 2018, I’m your guy.