In the last century, great writers achieved their greatness far earlier than they do now. Granted, they died earlier too, of fashionable afflictions such as bacterial infections, addiction, suicide, and the spleen; but it wasn’t uncommon for writers to be well on the road to superstardom and inclusion in the grand literary canon by the end of their twenties. So why are our great writers now so old, when they do great things?
James Joyce had written the genesis of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by the time he was 22, and finished Dubliners before he hit 30. Franz Kafka was dead at 40, leaving behind a considerable body of work. Ernest Hemingway published The Sun Also Rises at the age of 27.
In other fields, successful artists are much younger. Popular musicians generally achieve career highs in their 20s, or earlier, as accomplished at their craft as anyone could hope to be. Actors who don’t already make it by the age of 30 are on shaky ground, unless they’re only starting out as character actors much later in life.
But a 3-minute piece of research I conducted tirelessly earlier showed that the vast majority of successful writers nowadays don’t achieve recognisable career highs until at least their late thirties or forties. So what’s holding us up? Are antibiotics making us lazy about achieving things before we die? What can we possibly be doing in our twenties, that creative development is taking longer, or arrested entirely for the bones of a decade?
In order to answer these important, life-defining questions, I surveyed myself, and found to my surprise that my own lack of achievement in my 20s directly resulted from a little problem I had with being kind of an arsehole. I touched on this before in the post 5 Terrifyingly Awful Novels I Might Have Written In My 20s, so the facts are indisputable.
I spent 50% of my twenties worrying about what other people thought of me, and the other 50% worrying about what I thought of me, because I didn’t like myself at all, hardly. It was not conducive to good art. It was not conducive to good anything, unless you see simultaneous narcissism and self-loathing as a competitive sport.
However, the problem with these nuggets of self-insight is twofold: firstly, that they don’t explain my similar lack of world domination to date in my 30s, when I proudly became less of an arsehole; and second, that being an arsehole didn’t at all hinder the careers of James Joyce, Franz Kafka, or Ernest Hemingway. However, I will stick doggedly to my theory that creative development remains suspended in modern times (because, let’s face it, this blog post wouldn’t exist otherwise).
Part of the reason for this may be that people aren’t under as much real pressure today, to perform in their 20s, or even to grow up. We settle into ourselves later. We marry later, have children later, and get terrifying mortgages later. The literary critic Cyril Connolly said “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”, but I beg to differ. For many people, there’s no greater creative fire under one’s arse than the fact that they only have 30 minutes until the pram in the hall starts screaming, so they better get those bloody words down on the page before it happens.
Instead, we spend our 20s fighting to get and hold jobs we neither like nor want, because everybody knows that art rarely (if ever) pays anymore. Our spare time is spent drinking and socialising heavily to take away the edge of our youthful potential eroding visibly day-by-day; wondering if anyone will ever love us; and being obsessed with ourselves to the extent that writing about anything other than ourselves is a task so daunting as to be avoided. Blogging about ourselves can fill a void, of course, but it rarely if ever leads us to greatness.
I think the only solution to this might be to convince everybody that the apocalypse is coming. A real one. We’ll all be so busy forging our legacies whilst still in the bloom of youth, we’ll forget that in the event of the apocalypse, we’ll have nobody leave it to. But that’s art, is it not?
My question to you today is: what were you doing in your twenties? Was it a wasted decade for you? Or if not, what sickeningly fabulous achievement would you like to tell us about? Do tell. I have a bucket handy.