Yesterday I was emailed by a well-known literary journal that has published my work. “We’re putting together our ‘Writers Under 30’ issue and didn’t want to neglect your work,” the email said. “Are you under 30?” Here’s why I won’t be dignifying that question with a response.
Geez, I thought. Anything else you’d like to know? My BMI perhaps? Annual income? Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but it wasn’t so long ago that asking a woman — or anyone — their age was considered a rude line of questioning. But then, how does a literary journal put together a “Wonderbabies” issue without knowing writers’ ages? Which brings me to my second point.
Which is that, yes, I know our culture worships youth; it’s our national religion. Nothing new about that. All societies have done this to some extent; youth = fecundity, yada yada. Still, I expected something better from a respected literary journal. Or at least something more interesting. A writers-under-a-certain-age issue is hardly original; loads of them do it. A really cutting edge, ground-breaking issue would feature up-and-coming writers over the age of 50, say. Not that I could or would be in that issue, either — I’ve never liked being asked my age. Not when I was fifteen, not when I was 25. Not now. Not when I’m 100. The only reason I can see for asking someone their age is to compare them to others who are also the same age, which takes nothing about that person’s life into consideration except ticks on the clock. Maybe you spent your twenties in a medically-induced coma. Maybe the coma was only figurative; you spent your twenties in your parents’ guesthouse smoking pot. Maybe you were a missionary in Zambia before you had a crisis of faith and came home to pursue an MFA. Maybe you were in prison. My point is, celebrations of writers under a certain age tacitly imply a “shouldness” to one’s life and writing career: Where were you at twenty five? These people were getting their acts together! At least an “Up and Comers Over 50” issue would be counter-culture, it would be fighting against the tyranny of the status quo. Which, in my opinion, is something art should do.
It shouldn’t matter how old a person is, especially a writer. Writers aren’t pop singers; we don’t have to gyrate on stage in sparkly shorts. We sit a lot. We drink too much coffee and don’t get enough sun. If a person can write something meaningful or moving or melodious, this is the only thing that should ever matter, and it disappoints me that a literary journal I respect would participate in youth-worship. But maybe it’s not about sex appeal. Probably it’s not. In which case, I’d argue that it’s possibly more harmful.
To wit, it is discouraging to older writers.
If you are in your teens or twenties and your writings are being published in well-known literary journals, you don’t need to be carried around on anyone’s shoulders like a champ; chances are, you already know you’re pretty special. The universe is smiling on you, the world is your oyster, all that. I’m not saying it isn’t a hell of an accomplishment, only that there are oodles of people out there to make a fuss over young successes. What we need are people to make a fuss over the successes of those who aren’t “young” per se. I’m willing to bet that the bulk of literary journals’ readership are writers, and that the bulk of those writers are not in their twenties, and that those writers read “Wonderbabies” issues with a mixture of awe and dismay. These are the people we need to celebrate: the people who sit down at their desks every day, who keep writing and sending stuff out even though career-wise they may be past their supposed prime. They do it because they have to — to give up would mean letting a part of their soul atrophy. But that doesn’t mean they don’t do battle inside themselves every single day for the right to keep believing that a writer is who they are.