It’s always been tough for a writer to get published, but it’s getting increasingly tougher to get published again. If your debut novel wasn’t a blockbuster, your track record works against you. Sold 5,000 copies? Too bad. Instead of taking the time to figure out how to grow that number, many publishers would rather buy a lottery ticket by taking a chance on an unknown. It makes promotion easier. Hey, did you hear that this NEW author might sell 100,000 books? Or a million? She’s NEW, you know!
This is why we see so many of these Top 20 Under 40 lists and so few that feature Best Middle-Agers. Promise is often more attractive than performance. The ultimate expression of this attitude may be an article posted at The American Reader called “10 Under 10: Writers to Watch.” It purports to catalog the leading literary voices of the generation after the next generation. Some highlights from these interviews:
C.C. Lewis (age 7)
author of “What the Unicorns Forgot”
How long did it take you to write your first book?
Two years. I changed a lot in the process. I grew with my characters.
Did you ever consider not becoming a writer?
Last week I thought about being a nurse.
Owen Tinder (age 6)
author of “My Driveway”
What was the inspiration for the piece included in the “10 Under 10” series?
“My Driveway” was really tied to the advice to “Write what you know.” I knew that I could write the best piece of fiction about what I was deeply familiar with. I think that’s what gave the book that deep sense of intimacy, especially the now-infamous gravel scene. I find it helpful to limit myself to a subject or an area and work within those boundaries. It’s too hard to just sit down and say, “I want to write about Teaneck.” It’s just too broad a subject. Imposing those limits, from the garage door to the end of the curb, is what inspired the novel and allowed it to function. In the end, the fact that I’m not allowed to cross the street by myself turned out to be completely inspirational.
There’s a lot more, including quotes from other precocious tots such as “Of course I adore Cheever” and “I’m under contract with Picador for a new work—part memoir, part fictive Borgesian penseé. I don’t think I’m allowed to say much more than that.” Pitch-perfect satire and sheer deadpan hilarity.
The piece immediately reminded me of a legitimately great work of fiction on the same topic that first saw print in 1972. The novel Edwin Mullhouse carries an explanatory subtitle: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright. It was in fact written by Steven Millhauser (yes, Millhauser’s Mullhouse—surely we’re supposed to confuse the names), and it’s an extraordinarily layered story of childhood concerns and adult obsessions. The Jeffrey character relates a biography of the abbreviated life of his friend and classmate Edwin, proclaiming him an unsung genius of letters, but it’s clear from the start that the subject is a perfectly ordinary boy. Jeffrey, somehow speaking as an adult though a child himself, is the real focus of the account, and it’s his desire for acclaim that drives the book and Edwin’s career to a conclusion.
Millhauser is unmatched in his ability to evoke feeling through detail. When he describes a teacher’s frilly handkerchief or the sensation of peeling a candy dot off a strip of paper, it’s as though he’s slowed time itself so that the reader can finally appreciate what each moment means. When you view that rich, descriptive texture through the controlled distortion of a lens held by an untrustworthy narrator, you have a Nabokovian masterpiece in your hands, a kind of Pale Fire, Jr.
I don’t know if Steven Millhauser appeared on any lists of up-and-comers thirty-five years ago, but I do know he’s still working at the top of his game. We Others, a collection of new and selected stories, appeared just recently. In them, as critic Russell Potter said, “mechanical cowboys at penny arcades come to life; curious amusement parks, museums, or catacombs beckon with secret passageways and walking automata; dreamers dream and children fly out their windows at night on magic carpets.” The work proves that imagination can be youthful at any age.