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Dangers for the Teenage Novelist

Lately I’ve been reading Rado Pribic’s Nobel Laureates in Literature: A Biographical Dictionary, which is exactly what it sounds like–a dictionary of the Nobel laureates in literature from the very first one in 1901 (Rene-Francois-Armand Sully Prudhomme) to Najib Mahfuz, who won in 1988. In 2014, of course, that means it’s a little dated–it’s missing more than 20 years of the most recent laureates. But it’s still an interesting and sweeping collection of personalities and reading lists, and it’s self-aware enough to point out the dearth of women and minorities for much of the Nobel’s history.

There are over 80 authors discussed here in biographical/critical essays written by almost 50 scholars from around the globe (men and women alike), and I’ve read about half the book so far, opening it at random each night and reading a few entries over the course of an hour. And though the entries document the expectedly literary lives of playwrights, poets, and prose writers (including a few historians and philosophers), none of them (so far) mention any fiction laureates producing novels in their teens. Yet, when I talk to and work with adolescent fiction writers, a tremendous number of them state matter-of-factly that they’ve written at least one novel by the time they’re 15 or 16—some claim even to have a number of novels in progress, and others say not only have they written a novel, but they’ve already published it.

This all bothers me.

Jealousy! you say: This is a guy who’s upset people half his age are writing and publishing novels while he’s waiting around six months for a story rejection. But no, I tell you, it’s not jealousy. It’s easy to get published these days. It’s not always easy to get published well, but it’s easy to get published. Look at this post—I’m published right now.

But, you say, but how do you know these laureates weren’t writing novels at 15 or 16 or 17? Maybe the biographer left that bit out, you cranky, jealous scoundrel.

Good point, phantom critic: the essays vary depending on who wrote them—some scholars talk exclusively about the work, others focus also on the author’s childhood, romances, illnesses, manner of death, etc. It’s fair to say that if the fiction laureates were writing novels at age fifteen, we may not know of them simply because of a particular scholar’s approach.

But, says phantom critic, as an English teacher and a fiction writer yourself, should you not be happy that the younger generation of fiction writers is producing novels thirty or forty years before their prime? Does that not mean they’re practicing hard and developing the discipline necessary for great work later on?

Ooh, you are a tricky one, you ghastly ghost of conscience. To you I say this:

Maybe.

But writing a lot—and presumably a novel is a lot, since even a short one is around 50-60,000 words—doesn’t mean of course that the writing is any good. And yet it’s becoming clear to me that writing a novel may be something young fiction writers think is expected of them, especially in an age when they can self-publish. And what that then suggests to me is that they may be more focused on the end goal—publication—than on the process itself, which must remain a tremendously important part of the experience. Publication is a blast, for sure. But it’s a fleeting blast, and one that doesn’t often pay the bills. The process, though, both the joy and frustration of it, endures regardless of the writer’s age, and that’s the part where we learn about ourselves as writers and as people, and that’s the part where we improve our story-telling skills.

What does often change with age—hopefully for the better—is the quality of the work. And I would venture that one of the ways teenaged fiction writers are producing what seems to be an abundance of novels (whether published or not) is that the work isn’t yet very skillful—it’s not as difficult to produce a lot of words if the quality of the work isn’t very high. And while I know this sounds like a cranky, jealous scoundrel speaking, I would also guess it’s dangerously true. It’s the literary equivalent of me saying I’ve run four half-marathons (which adds up to 2 full ones!)—at first blush, that information may sound impressive to some folks, especially those who don’t run. But it’s less impressive when I add that I’ve never finished above the middle of the pack, that I always walk at least a half-dozen times, and that I’ve never broken two hours. It’s a lot of running, but I would never say it’s skillful.

What I want to say to young fiction writers then, is this: go ahead and write your novels if you must, but slow down. Make sure it takes you at least a year to do so; it should take more. You have school, sure, but you probably don’t have to worry as much about making meals or paying bills or the thousand other adult annoyances that cut into writing time. Slow down. Read a lot and pay attention when you do. Write stories, which are far more difficult in many ways than novels and demand that you can’t wander all over the place–you have to learn to be concise and precise in your diction and also ruthless in your editing. Slow down. Writing a good, long work should be a rush and a chance to pat yourself on the back, but earn it–don’t just churn it out. Go into a bookstore and look around: we have enough of that kind of writing already.