Young at Art: Some 20-Something Authors Write Classics

Authors need to be in their 30s or older before they have enough life experience and writing know-how to pen a dazzling and challenging novel. Right?

Usually, but not always. Sometimes, authors bring the precocious to the prose while still in their 20s. Many authors have written good novels in their 20s, but how many have written great ones?

I thought about that while recently reading The Luminaries, the 2013 novel published just before author Eleanor Catton turned 28. It was already surprising that her first book (The Rehearsal) came out five years earlier, but her Booker Prize-winning second novel is exceptionally mature, complex, riveting, and long (830 pages) for a work written at such a young age. Also, The Luminaries is set during New Zealand’s 1860s gold rush and has a mostly male cast, so Catton’s sprawling book required lots of research and imaginative leaping. (But I should note that her part-mystery novel could have been about 200 pages shorter, and its concluding “flashback” chapters are not quite as satisfying as what comes before.)

A number of young 19th-century authors wrote classics, too. For instance, the 1818-born Emily Bronte saw her highly original Wuthering Heights novel published in 1847, and her 1820-born sister Anne — after warming up with 1847’s straightforward Agnes Grey — broke feminist ground with 1848’s formidable, compelling The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The often-secluded nature of the Bronte sisters’ lives lent itself to lots of intense writing time — with another participant of course being Charlotte Bronte, who was in her early 30s when Jane Eyre rocketed to fame.

The 19th century was also a time of much less distraction (obviously no computers, social media, blogs, TV, movies, radio, etc.), so aspiring young authors could more easily concentrate on writing.

Mary Shelley hadn’t even turned 22 when Frankenstein was published in 1818. It didn’t hurt the development of Shelley’s literary genius that she was the daughter of writers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin as well as the wife of renowned poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. (The influence of Wollstonecraft — who wrote the novel Mary: A Fiction before age 30 — on her daughter was not direct; she unfortunately died just days after giving birth.) Before turning 30 herself, the 1797-born Mary Shelley went on to write three more novels — including the imaginative, apocalyptic The Last Man (1826).

Back in the 18th century, Goethe became famous for The Sorrows of Young Werther at age 25.

Charles Dickens wrote five novels before age 30, including some memorable ones, but his more challenging classics would come later. The 1819-born Herman Melville had a similar career trajectory, writing four novels by 1849 but Moby-Dick and other immortal works after that. And W. Somerset Maugham wrote four novels in his 20s but none of them the books we most remember him by.

Stephen Crane penned The Red Badge of Courage and all his other works as a 20-something, of course, because he never reached 30. F. Scott Fitzgerald had two fairly good novels (This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned) out in his mid-20s before penning the masterful The Great Gatsby while still under 30. His contemporary, Ernest Hemingway, came out with The Sun Also Rises at age 27.

Moving further into the 20th century, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was released when author Carson McCullers was 23. Interestingly, that novel’s skillful interweaving of various characters’ lives made it the most complex of all the works she would write.

The flip side of this discussion is authors who didn’t write their debut novel until well on in years — with one of the most striking examples being Harriet Doerr’s Stones for Ibarra getting published when she was 74.

Your favorite authors who wrote great novels while still in their 20s? (You can include ones I mentioned. 🙂 ) Your favorite authors who wrote great novels as senior citizens? And, lastly, any thoughts on age as it relates to writing — including whether there’s an ideal time of life to pen a novel?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else. Also, please feel free to read through comments and reply to anyone you want; I love not only being in conversations, but also reading conversations in which I’m not involved!)

For three years of my Huffington Post literature blog, click here.

I’m also in the middle of writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

156 thoughts on “Young at Art: Some 20-Something Authors Write Classics

  1. When I read this post a week ago, I couldn’t really think of any authors to add or points to make without a bit of consideration. Then the week got away from me and I never got back to it. With a fresh perspective, I still can’t add much beyond the fact that many writers start in their 20’s, toil away, pay their dues and finally get publication and recognition when they’re a bit older, at least in their 30’s. It almost goes without saying that when massive success comes to many young people they have trouble handing it and often implode or destroy themselves with drugs, alcohol and frivolous spending. I think it’s interesting that those four big American authors of the first half of the 20th Century (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck) all wrote and published their first novels before they turned 30, even if they didn’t write their greatest works until a few years later. The next generation, including Bradbury, Vonnegut, Capote and Carson McCullers also started early. Bradbury had several stories published in his 20’s although the noteworthy collections didn’t start appearing until his 30’s. McCullers and Capote both had immense success (and notoriety) with their first novels in their 20’s but for various reasons had difficulty handling that success. Vonnegut really didn’t have much success with his novels (although he had published ‘Player Piano’ and several stories earlier) until he had already had several jobs and a wife and a few kids toward the end of his 30’s. I’ve always been a bit wary of having massive success at a young age. Some have to have some rough edges knocked off of them from experience before they can really write about life although, as we’ve all mentioned, there have been notable exceptions.

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    • Thanks for commenting, bobess48! It’s never too late to do so. 🙂

      What you say is certainly true for many novelists. Their 20s are sort of a training period, and then they become great (or don’t become great) when they get somewhat older. There are certainly only a few authors who write masterpieces as 20-somethings.

      And so true about how massive success at a very young age may not be a good thing — whether in the world of literature, music, acting, sports, etc. Too much money, fame, and ego gratification can certainly go to a person’s head.

      Great comment, as always!

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  2. “We Are What We Pretend to Be”, contains two previously unpublished stories by Kurt Vonnegut. The first, Basic Training, was his first novella was written in 1950 when he was in his 20`s and struggling to make it as a writer and never published.
    What a delightful book to read Haley Brandon a sixteen-year-old youth whose adoptive parents die in an accident. He moves from the city to the country to live with his uncle and cousins whom he has never met. It is a bitter, story that satirizes the military, authoritarianism, gender . Haley Brandon, the adolescent protagonist, comes to the farm of his relative, the old crazy who insists upon being called The General, to learn to be a straight-shooting American.In the end Hailey survived by standing up to the General who proved to be a caricature of a man with deranged values.

    The second was written in 2000 when he was in his late 70`s and the book ended abruptly Dave as we discussed the book before.
    The two selections clearly illustrate the differences between the young, more traditional aspiring writer and the old, cynical Vonnegut who has lived the life and seen it all as we know him through his endearing literary life.

    His daughter Nannette published the book with two previously unpublished novellas and as she she points out Both stories contain autobiographical elements, The first recalls a youthful love while the second reveals an aging, depressive life.

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    • Good morning, bebe! That collection of two Vonnegut works indeed exemplifies some of the differences between the younger and older author — as you eloquently noted.

      As we’ve discussed, I agree that “Basic Training” — while not a classic — is an excellent novella. You can definitely see the writing talent that would become even more impressive in later books such as “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

      The second novella, “If God Were Alive Today” has its good moments and its not-so-good moments, and, as you allude to, is unfinished.

      Thanks for mentioning “We Are What We Pretend to Be,” and for the excellent description/summary of “Basic Training”!

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      • Hi Dave…went to Washington for a week…met some friends . While coming back the flight was full..there was a gentleman sitting right in front of me ( in coach) rather good looking so I noticed..later also he was waiting where I was for luggage. Then I heard two starstruck women giggling and ..that was Rob Portman ( R)..and I had no idea that was him. I just goggled him and surely it was Mr. Republican…came home a voice mail on my machine from him days ago for a town hall meeting..duh…lol..

        Mr. Millionaire ( all are) travels in coach…but of course !

        Now while going there was Christine Brennan the sportscaster.from TV and USA today Although I am not a sports fan had absolutely no problem recognizing her 😉

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        • Glad you got a chance to do some traveling, bebe! You definitely had some celebrity flight experiences! Surprising to hear about Rob Portman being in coach. Perhaps he was trying to pretend he was a populist? 🙂

          If I’m remembering right, Portman is the conservative politician who found out his son was gay and then quickly became enlightened about gay rights. Sort of like Dick Cheney with his daughter. Some right-wingers suddenly become tolerant on a particular topic when it affects them directly.

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          • Yes..they all her was pretending to be a populist. Also now suddenly he is so tolerant and enlightened for gay rights.It is sad…
            As I was travelling I read USA today, WS Journal the hotel provides them. One columnist in USA today wrote an article…in midterm Latinos did not line up to the voting booth. I have a feeling also so many progressives as well ? Otherwise this surge in republican majority is mind boggling. In other words we have only voters to blame that is us. . 😦

            “Be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be.”
            Kurt Vonnegut

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            • That IS a great Vonnegut quote, bebe!

              Yes, it was depressing that many people didn’t vote in the midterm elections. But I can at least partly understand the frustration that led to that. Republican voter suppression efforts (ID cards, less early voting, etc.) made it harder for some people to vote, and others were frustrated at how Obama often didn’t take strong enough stands — the president’s waffling on immigration, for instance, probably cost him some turnout by progressive voters, Hispanic-American voters, and progressive Hispanic-American voters. And Obama’s support of domestic government spying, some of the military actions he’s taken, his near-silence on the brutality of Egypt’s new leadership, his coddling of Wall Street, etc., have turned off many progressives.

              End of rant. 🙂

              Now, after the election, Obama seems to be acting more courageously on stuff like immigration and climate change. I hope that continues!

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              • Absolutely perfect rant Dave and I agree with you hundred percent.
                Obama was disappointing with his waffling on everything…but I blame the Dem candidates from not recognizing..his achievements and there are plenty of them.
                They really deserved to lose for their double standards.
                One hope could be voters are fickle and have short term memories.
                Only Mr. Barney Sanders have shown interest in running for President..hope he runs as a Democrat !
                Madame Hill should have stayed away for a while but she had to talk plenty which turned us off.

                So who..? Warren is not running . 😦

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                • Thanks, bebe! Politics can be so frustrating in the U.S. that it’s good to vent about it sometimes. I remember some of those great HP discussions we had in 2012 about Romney and that year’s presidential race.

                  Great point in your second paragraph! Obama, while sort of a mixed bag of a centrist, did have some real achievements — yet so many Democrats ran away from that, as you note. Those “Republican Lite” Dems ended up looking wimpy and disloyal, and lost anyway.

                  Hillary Clinton is another centrist, but I suppose she’d be better than any GOP horror who runs in 2016 (Chris Christie? Jeb Bush? Rand Paul? Ted Cruz?). A ticket of Warren/Sanders or Sanders/Warren would be WONDERFUL, but the liberal-baiting GOP and its corporate backers, and the liberal-baiting media, would attack that ticket like crazy. 😦

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                  • EEK…to all GOP wannabe candidates.

                    I would vote for Sanders and then whoever becomes the nominee I am there. I really do not think Warren will run…but I am for Mr. Sanders.
                    You are so right Dave…All of a sudden..Monica have resurfaced. And now Kenneth Starr…showed up I almost forgot he ever existed.

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              • So much shouting and mud-wrestling on the stage apron, while behind the opaque and golden curtain the usual suspects do what they please. There is much noise and dirt on hand, by which one might choose to be distracted from the fact that none of us who imagine we talk about the events of the day know much if anything about the doings behind the curtain.

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                • Very true and well said, jhNY. Behind America’s alleged democracy, corporations and various “bigwigs” are controlling so much with their money, their influence, and their rigging of “the game.”

                  One recent example is in New Jersey’s Newark, where wealthy forces trying to corporatize and privatize the city’s public school system threw tons of money behind a mayoral candidate who ended up losing decisively to an underfunded candidate who’s against those education “reforms.” Yet the corporatizing and privatizing continues unabated, helped by the fact that the school district is under the state’s (and Gov. Christie’s) control rather than the city’s control. The “democratic” election became essentially meaningless because of those bigwigs behind your aptly described “golden curtain.”

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  3. As one of the categories for this week’s discussion is writers who have been crowned with success late in life, I nominate one who was so crowned, though posthumously: Giuseppe di Lampedusa, whose name is now more familiar worldwide than it has ever been, as his Sicilian noble family gave their name to an island they owned for centuries: Lampedusa, which means ‘octopus’, lately in the news as the end-point for too many refugees’ boats making their way to Europe from North Africa.

    Having read a biography of the man, as well as everything translated into English that he wrote, i feel qualified to make this pronouncement: that he was an avid, insightful reader of European literature over his lifetime, but otherwise, was busy droning about over six decades on the dwindling income from several rundown estates, while taking little effective action to increase incomes or improve his estates. His beloved family home in Palermo was bombed into unlivability, but was never repaired, though he lived more than a decade after the fact. As late as the ’90’s, pages from his formidable library could be seen blowing across the rubble-strewn floors of the palazzo, through holes in the outer walls.

    “The Leopard”, Lampedusa’s only novel, was written in the last years of his life, and concerns the head of a Sicilian noble family and his efforts to steer the family through the various upheavals of 19th century Italian politics, and through the accompanying, and occasionally bewildering, social and economic changes. It is a work of fiction, but “The Leopard” obviously concerns subjects dear to the author’s heart, and central to his own life, as he takes the raw stuff of family gossip and local politics and makes insightful, exquisitely phrased art out of it all.

    He died before he saw it in print, but “The Leopard”, when it was published a short while after his death, was an international success, and has been called the greatest Italian novel written in the 20th century.

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    • I remember you mentioning “The Leopard,” jhNY. One of the books high on my to-read list. A terrific example of a first novel written by an older writer. Thanks for the superb, evocative description of that book and its author!

      (In the nonfiction area, Frank McCourt’s first book — the memoir “Angela’s Ashes” — was published when he was in his mid-60s, I believe.)

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      • jhNY, as you might have seen elsewhere in the comments section in one of my replies to “Susan,” I finished “A Confederacy of Dunces” last night.

        I think the novel is hilarious and satirical. Ignatius Reilly is mostly unlikable — a moocher, a narcissist, a liar, a glutton, etc. — but one does sympathize with him at times. And he is incredibly smart, as well as wisely cynical about the way the modern world operates. He certainly doesn’t fit into that world!

        I also thought John Kennedy Toole ended the novel quite well, with so many major things happening to the various characters. Interestingly, things turned kind of positive for some characters because of Ignatius’ bumbling and obnoxiousness. Ironic!

        Perhaps another reason why Toole couldn’t get “Dunces” published in his lifetime (in addition to Ignatius being so unlikable and some publishers being so clueless) involved the vivid African-American character of Jones and the vivid gay and lesbian characters. Not sure publishers were quite ready for all that in the early- and mid-1960s.

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        • A dependable repository of laughs, that one, but written without regard to sales categories and marketing strategies. Don’t think anybody in the publishing game knew what to do with the thing till it was too late. Toole’s mother must have been a formidable person, and one not easily turned from her goal.

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          • Yes, “A Confederacy of Dunces” was so original in many ways that it’s very hard to categorize — and market-oriented book publishers didn’t/don’t like stuff they can’t put into some sort of category.

            From what I’ve read, Thelma Toole was indeed formidable — in getting her son’s novel published posthumously and also in getting too involved in her son’s life when he was alive.

            Robert Gottlieb, the former Simon & Schuster editor who rejected “Confederacy,” is still alive. Wonder how he felt about John Kennedy Toole’s suicide? Gottlieb did get “Catch-22” into print, so that ended better…

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            • According to wikipedia, she more or less forced Walker Percy to read it — and we’re all the better for her having done so. Still, it was written in 1963, which makes its chances in the marketplace during his lifetime maybe slimmer still….

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              • Yes, Toole was ahead of his time. A novel like that had to seem more shocking in the early ’60s than it would decades later.

                I also read about the mother’s aggressive approach. It certainly did get results!

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  4. When I think of writers who wrote early, I first think of John Keats who is one of my favorite authors, and also one of my favorite poets, who wrote my favorite poem, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.”
    But when it comes to novelists, I remember reading Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage” and considering it the greatest books on war I ever read. Almost made me feel like I was there. And most writers of combat, seem to play for tragedy and emotional force, but his writing belied a forceful nature without being overpowering.
    Denton Welch’s “Maiden Voyage”, about a boy who leaves his school in England to settle in Shanghai is vividly portrayed. The book may seem somewhat autobiographical. It was written when he was around 25 years old.
    So many authors wrote into their later years such as Twain and Dickens. Milton was still writing his poetry even as he was losing his sight.

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    • Great mention of John Keats, Eric! He and another stellar poet of his era, Percy Bysshe Shelley, didn’t even live to age 30. And their contemporary Lord Byron also wrote many works in his 20s. I wonder if a larger percentage of poets, for whatever reason, create dazzling works at a younger age than novelists do.

      Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage” was indeed excellent, as was his novella “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.”

      Thanks, also, for the mention of Denton Welch’s “Maiden Voyage,” with which I had not been familiar. Sounds very compelling!

      Yes, some authors write well into their later years. The older Jorge Luis Borges shared Milton’s eyesight problem, and Herman Melville wrote “Billy Budd” late in life (though it wasn’t published until decades after his death).

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      • Crane was admired as a writer by the young Henry James, who was an occasional visitor to his digs, I learned in an July LRB review of a Crane biography by Paul Sorrentino– a fact I found to be a bit surprising, and a compliment to James’ perspicacity.

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        • I didn’t know about that Crane-James connection, jhNY. Interesting and, as you say, surprising. I think of them as very different authors, but, then again, it has been so long since I read Crane that I barely remember his writing style. 🙂

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            • Yes, nothing wrong with — and nothing truly surprising about — a great creative mind admiring a different kind of creative mind! For instance, there was an excellent comment by Kat Lib elsewhere under this blog post about Ray Bradbury being a fan of Edith Wharton.

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            • Regarding Henry James’ appreciation of writers quite different from himself–He also praised Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’ which he said distilled that pirate/sea experience perfectly and made him really feel like he was there…or something to that effect. It’s been many years since I read that quote. Aside from being friendly with Stevenson, he was also friends or at least friendly colleagues with Stephen Crane, Joseph Conrad and H.G. Wells and a fairly close friend of Edith Wharton. All of these are somewhat different in subject matter or approach from him. Of course, he could be quite critical of many of these authors as well and, as I’ve said before, he had a strange, exacting critical sensibility and got out the knives even on authors he greatly admired such as George Eliot.

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              • Sounds like Henry James liked a wide variety of authors, bobess48! I didn’t know the extent of that until seeing your great comment.

                Most of James’ work certainly differs greatly from Robert Louis Stevenson’s, although Stevenson’s magnificent, last, unfinished novel (“Weir of Hermiston”) has some James-like qualities.

                And, yes, James could also be critical of authors — as in his mixed review of George Eliot’s stellar “Middlemarch.”

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      • Novels, as a literary form, haven’t got the history that poems do. There is a large sample of poets, stretching over millennia, and a few centuries of novelists– with certain exceptions such as Cervantes and Lady Murasaki.

        Also, poems, epics excepted, are comparatively short. The creation of an entire world in which characters interact is not required. The brevity of form allows many to try their hand, at a young age. And the reward? Pound used to say four good lines of poetry made one an immortal. For a novelist, I’d figure on four good chapters at the very very least.

        The young can create dazzling poetry, as can the old, though the youth are most often mentioned in connection with tragic deaths brought by their own folly (see Chatterton), I guess because dying old is not so tragic comparatively. But one of my favorite poets, all-time, world-class, is Li Po, Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty. Tradition holds he died, in old age, by drunkenly leaping from his boat to embrace the reflection of the moon.

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        • Very true, jhNY, about the novel being a much newer literary form than poetry — with a few exceptions, as you note.

          And your reasons for younger writers being more likely to create dazzling poems than dazzling novels make total sense.

          The perhaps apocryphal cause of Li Po’s death has to be one of the most poetic things I’ve ever heard!

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        • But, in earlier times, bards did have to remember great volumes of poetry by memory, as writing was not yet formed in earlier civilizations, and sporadic at best for some time after that. It helped them immensely the more time they had to perfect their art, and the memorization of what they had to say. Popular bards were almost always in the twilight of their years.

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          • And a great many such folk–scholars had similar challenges before writing– had access to what they needed to recall by means of mnemonic memory, a method of knowledge-storage discussed in The White Goddess and also in The Notebooks of Matteo Ricci.

            Examples: 1) the hand– each joint on each finger can stand for whatever needs to be recalled– between the two hands, the alphabet, the names of sacred trees, the corresponding names of gods– there are 28 joints to which one can assign values or things.

            2) knots– in the original Jaws movie, Robert Shaw recites a rhyme about fish in and out of a hole to show how a particular knot is tied. More often, the knots and lengths of string between them are used to store and recall memorized fact. A few of such knot-devices exist today from ancient cultures, though no one knows precisely what the devices symbolize any longer.

            The greatest historical example of knot use in mnemonic memory, or at least I have long assumed it was: the Gordian Knot. Sacred and/or philosophic texts, memorized and stored in the massive knot as information to be recalled by adepts. The notion was that only a master of all the knowledge contained therein might hope to be the conqueror of Asia. Alexander, audacious as ever, cut through that notion with his sword.

            3) Memory Palace– Imagine a palace of many rooms, and imagine the furnishings of each room. For each room detail, a fact may be assigned, to be recalled by remembering the the detail and its corresponding assignment. Cardinal Ricci, Italian Jesuit, became one of the first Europeans to learn Court Mandarin, and he learned via this ‘memory palace’ method. He was conversant and skilled in the language to the degree that he was able to help prepare students for the most important test of their lives– their civil service exams. In a recent episode, the BBC Sherlock Holmes uses this method to recall facts he has stored….

            This sort of memory aid was in common use before writing, and was still in use among some scholars till printing made books cheap. There are treatises and instructions on the subject from Classical times.

            So, to sum up– we memorized by mnemonic devices till writing came into practice, though we still used them till printing made books cheap enough to be the common means of knowledge storage, and now we (excepting those of us who still prefer a book in hand) rely on the internets for our storage of facts.

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            • Such an informative comment, jhNY. A stellar essay, really. Thank you! I learned a whole lot. And here I thought memory devices were just basic things like music’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favor!

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              • Thanks!

                But I should have kept going, so as to address ericpollock’s comment more completely. To wit:

                Melody is likewise a mnemonic means of fixing facts for recall– see the ABC song, for example. And your ancient bards, Homeric type, sang their epic sagas with a lyre. The Greeks had already worked out the modes of harmony out which most melodies, even to the present day, derive. Melodies in a minor mode are likely to have underpinned sung tales of tragedy, or tragic parts of epics, etc., and melodies derived from major modes are likely to have have underpinned happier tales or sections of epic recitations by lyre.

                There is actually some ancient Indian religious music–Vedic?– still sung phonetically today by sect members, which originates before the dawn of recorded history. And the language they sing is no longer remembered by anybody. But thanks to the memory-fixing power of melody, the song remains the same.

                I think this fleshes out more satisfactorily what i meant to impart re the ancient bards’ capacity to sing things like The Iliad.

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  5. Howdy, Dave!

    — Your favorite authors who wrote great novels while still in their 20s? —

    It being the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, I first recall in this context not a novelist but a poet, Rupert Brooke, author of “The Great Lover” and victim of The Great War, which, in retrospect, was not really all that great, except for arms manufacturers, associated denizens of the eternal military-industrial complex and the odd mosquito.

    Rupert Brooke
    3 August 1887-23 April 1915
    Whose Words Were Dammed
    Not by the Central Powers of Europe
    But by the State Bird of New Jersey
    Vacationing in the Aegean

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

    P.S.: Meanwhile, the also-effusive Thomas Wolfe had his novel “Look Homeward, Angel” published in the same year he turned 29, with the help and/or hindrance of the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins at the house of Scribner. Of course, the same firm published F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels “This Side of Paradise,” “The Beautiful and Damned” and “The Great Gatsby,” all written before their author turned 30, as well as Ernest Hemingway’s novels “The Sun Also Rises” and “A Farewell to Arms,” both written before their author turned 30. (I am completely unfamiliar with “The Beautiful and Damned,” but I believe all of the other five books could be classified as great novels, at least by the likes of me.)

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    • Mentions of poets are welcome, J.J.! And Rupert Brooke is indeed very appropriate for Veterans Day.

      When seeing your comment, I realized that “The Naked and the Dead” war novel came out when Norman Mailer was in his mid-20s. Not having read it, I don’t know if it was great. It certainly was popular!

      And when writing my post, I also thought I might include “All Quiet on the Western Front” in it, but Erich Maria Remarque (at 30) had just left his 20s when his great antiwar novel was published.

      I agree that there was nothing great about The Great War. Well said! Not that it was a relief when that nearly needless bunch of battles was renamed World War I, because the human catastrophe of World War II had to happen for the renaming to happen.

      Thanks, also, for your mentions of Wolfe, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald! I thought “This Side of Paradise” was very good for a debut novel, but weak enough in some parts not to be considered a classic.

      I appreciate the superb and seriocomic comment!

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      • — I thought “This Side of Paradise” was very good for a debut novel, but weak enough in some parts not to be considered a classic. —

        Man! You constitute one tough crowd!

        So: Based on your blog post, I am guessing your opinion of “The Beautiful and Damned” is about the same. True? False? Other?

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        • J.J., even an “A-” or “B+” Fitzgerald could write rings around me (but not you!). Not sure if F. Scott could write “Rings” around Tolkien, but that’s another story…

          To tell the truth, I haven’t read “The Beautiful and the Damned” (I do read at least 95% of the novels I mention in my columns. 🙂 ). I was just going by the general opinion of that book. I’ve read every other Fitzgerald novel, and — as we might have discussed before — in some ways I like “Tender Is the Night” better than “The Great Gatsby.” (“Tender” is not as “perfect” a book, but I think it has more heart.) I also think “The Last Tycoon” is very compelling; it’s a shame it’s unfinished.

          What’s your favorite Fitzgerald work?

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          • — What’s your favorite Fitzgerald work? —

            “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”? I have a short attention span, which is why I like it even more than “Tender Is the Night,” “The Great Gatsby” and “This Side of Paradise.” (“The Last Tycoon” just makes me mad.)

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            • Thanks, J.J.! I haven’t read Fitzgerald’s short stories; I’d like to one day. (Looking up “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” on Wikipedia, I see it might be long enough to be considered a novella. From the description there, it sounds absolutely fascinating.)

              What makes you mad about “The Last Tycoon”? It not being finished? The sometimes annoying, self-involved nature of the Irving Thalberg-like protagonist? Other reason(s)?

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              • — What makes you mad about “The Last Tycoon”? —

                Don’t get me started! Everything!

                It all comes down to those three little words: Life is unfair.

                Irving Thalberg, a genius storyteller as a film-studio production head, dies at 37.

                F. Scott Fitzgerald, a genius storyteller as a fiction writer, dies at 44.

                “The Last Tycoon” is not finished but published.

                Why? Why? Why?

                Life is unfair.

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                • Well, those are some good reasons, J.J.

                  I know Irving Thalberg was involved with dozens of more important movies, but I always think of him in association with The Marx Brothers’ “A Night at the Opera” and “A Day at the Races.” 🙂

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                  • I associate him with firing Von Stroheim mid-picture, and with messing up Buster Keaton’s anarchic production style at the behest of Louis B. Mayer, and thus, his movie career. Also, with the fact there are too many Norma Shearer movies.

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                    • Sounds like you have at best mixed feelings about Irving Thalberg. Obviously he’s not the first Hollywood producer or director to have featured his wife or girlfriend in movies — with some of those actresses very talented and others not so much.

                      Your mention of Buster Keaton reminded me that The Marx Brothers were rendered a bit less anarchic in “A Night at the Opera” and “A Day at the Races” than they had been in their earlier movies. Sappy love stories were shoehorned in, too. I’m not sure how much of all that was Thalberg’s doing.

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          • I am entirely sure F. Scott could write rings around Tolkien, though The Hobbit creator certainly has him beat by length of effort toward a three-part goal. And yes, I’ve read the aforementioned, and the trilogy, and was once a possessor of the Silmarillion, though not a reader of it for very long. Stephen Colbert, by contrast, knows it thoroughly, though why, is an open question.

            Tolkien deserves comparison with CS Lewis’s Narnia books, and will not suffer by it, though he will also not triumph over Lewis. Both men wrote under the forbidding shadow of the Second World War; each believed he might make a fable which would distract his reader’s from the great noise beyond the reading room, by which distraction each took the long way ’round to bring back his readers to an allegorical and upliftingly moral recasting of the great noise outside.

            The great challenge, I would imagine, in making imaginary worlds, is to populate them. In Tolkien’s case, I can recall no well-developed female characters.

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            • Yes, F. Scott could write rings around J.R.R., but he didn’t write “Rings.” 🙂 Fitzgerald as a fantasy novelist…hmm. I’d love to see “The Great Gatsby” characters deal with an Orc or two on Long Island!

              I once tried to read “The Silmarillion,” and, like you, was not a fan. I found it boring. And I’m someone who loves “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” — reading both several times.

              Great paragraph about the fables of pals Tolkien and C.S. Lewis!

              Tolkien’s casts were indeed mostly male, with a few secondary women characters. A major deficit in his writing.

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                • I wouldn’t exactly say that one writer is better than the other; just different. They were both masters of their own brand of fiction, and non-fiction, that they wrote, excelling within their own disciplines of story telling.

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                  • Eric, it IS hard to compare F. Scott Fitzgerald and J.R.R. Tolkien. As you note, VERY different writers. Fitzgerald was a more masterful prose stylist, and plumbed human emotions and psychology quite well. But Tolkien’s imagining of a whole different world and the propulsive way he told his epic adventure tales were quite impressive.

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  6. Sorry, Dave, I’ve been distracted all week and day. As my sister and I were saying not long ago, once anything breaks down, everything does. I thought about this when you were talking last week about being cinematically challenged in your new apartment. During the last week or so, my heater died (but fortunately fixed by a paper clip of all things), I replaced my printer, my stove needs to be replaced, my toaster oven died last night, and the keyboard that allowed me to type comments when the keyboard on the main computer died, also died, I had to go get a new one today. To add insult to injury, when I was trying to bring everything I bought into my condo, the basket on my walker decided to fall off. Oh well, as my best friend keeps telling me, “Life is good.” 🙂

    I had a really tough time coming up with any comments. Most of the authors I read somehow had to be in their 30’s before any kind of success. The only example I could come up with was Ray Bradbury, who was writing things most of his life, but his first success as a novelist came when he published a group of stories he’d written as “The Martian Chronicles.” I believe he wrote this in his 20’s, although it wasn’t published as a book until he was 30. I loved this book years ago, and re-read it not long ago, and I was still enchanted by his ability to write prose. Of course, his most important books weren’t published until “451 Fahrenheit” and “The Illustrated Man,” which I believe he wrote or were least published during his young 30’s.

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    • Kat Lib, awful how many things broke and went wrong for you in just a few days. Absolutely beyond the realm of random chance. 😦

      I realize this column of mine was a tough topic to comment on. Many authors indeed don’t publish until their 30s, or don’t write their best work until their 30s — or later. My next (already written) post this Sunday evening will have a question much easier to answer!

      Glad you mentioned Ray Bradbury! I have “The Martian Chronicles,” and loved it as a teen. I was also impressed by “The Illustrated Man.” I should reread both. I still have to read the classic “Fahrenheit 451.” One of these days…

      Thanks for the great comment! Your new keyboard works well. 🙂

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      • What’s most interesting to me is that when he first wrote “The Martian Chronicles” during the late 40’s, people honestly believed that there could be “Life on Mars,” to quote one of my favorite songs by David Bowie. Yet even reading those stories when we know that the whole premise is false, Bradbury still made those stories come alive today, which is to me the mark of a great writer.

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        • Yes, when authors are great, it’s easy and pleasurable to suspend belief and just enjoy the prose and the story.

          I guess some listeners believed Orson Welles’ 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast about the Martians coming!

          (By the way, as you might know, Orson Welles and the then-elderly “War of the Worlds” author H.G. Wells met during a 1940 radio program in Texas. There’s a tape of it on YouTube.)

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          • I was quite interested to learn that when Bradbury was in high school, he first met Robert A. Heinlein, when he was just 31. “Stranger in a Strange Land,” is high on my lists of books to re-read. Another interesting fact is that one of the authors Bradbury favored the most when reading in high school was Edith Wharton, whom I think you know is at the top of my lists.

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            • That’s QUITE a meeting of two people who were/became sci-fi giants. And I had no idea Ray Bradbury was an Edith Wharton fan! An interesting example of how so many authors read outside the genre they write in — and I’m glad they do! Heck, Balzac was a big fan of James Fenimore Cooper’s work…

              Have you ever visited Wharton’s “The Mount” mansion in Lenox, Mass.? I haven’t, unfortunately.

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              • No, I haven’t; although I must say that I lived around the corner from the Pearl S. Buck House and Historic Center when I lived for a time in Bucks Co., PA. Although I very much enjoyed “The Good Earth,” I can’t say she was one of my favorite writers.

                BTW, I was talking to my sister earlier today about all the bad things happening in my home lately, and she suggested I have an exorcism I suggested that perhaps we could get the Gordon “Dr. Chaps” Klingenschmitt, who has performed on-line exorcisms on President Obama for his Satanic ways (and who was just elected to the Colorado State Legislature). What do you think?

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                • Nice to have been near that Pearl S. Buck site, Kat Lib! I’m trying to remember if I ever read “The Good Earth.” If so, it was very long ago.

                  LOL — your exorcism comment! Somehow, I had never heard of that “Dr. Chaps” nut. Sounds like he’s about smack in the middle of the Republican “mainstream” these days… 🙂

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                  • I have to say that from what I’ve seen of ” Dr. Chaps,” he is even somehow outside the middle of the Republican party, which says a lot about where he is coming from,

                    Also, my keyboard dying on me was actually a good thing. That keyboard was very difficult to get the “g” to work without pounding on it — do you know how many words there are that start as “good,” “great” or ending in “…ing”? Trust me, there are a lot.

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                    • If “Dr. Chaps” is outside the crazy GOP norm these days, he must be VERY crazy. 🙂

                      Glad your new keyboard is better! Yes, “g” is a popular letter. We can now discuss “The Great Gatsby,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and…um…Google!

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                    • Kat Lib, I’m very early in Anne Lamott’s “Blue Shoe,” but I’m liking it — and Lamott’s writing style — a LOT! Thanks for “introducing” me to that author. 🙂

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                    • Can’t remember who wrote it now, and I’ve looked— but there was a storybook my mother read us wherein pirates steal the letter ‘o’. Ophelia Oliver, deprived of it, was so mortified she never left her house again, as she did not wish to answer to ‘Phelia Liver’. She would have been able to relate to your difficulties re ‘g’.

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                    • Dave, I’ve been having trouble logging in, so I don’t know exactly where this comment will appear, but I wanted to say that I’ve been reading Anne Lamott extensively this last past week or so, and have been sticking with her non-fiction/memoir books. I think I mentioned that she had many religious books, but I’ve found her to be very non-judgmental in her writings, where she will talk about God as He or She, and she never hits one over the head about what she believes or doesn’t believe. She can be very funny regardless of all that and is someone I’d like to have as a friend.

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                    • Sorry you’ve been having log-in problems, Kat Lib, but your latest comment ended up in the right thread. 🙂

                      If Anne Lamott’s nonfiction is as good as her fiction (from my small sample so far), it is good indeed! I’ve noticed in “Blue Shoe” that religion makes an appearance here and there but, as in the Lamott books you’ve read, not in an intrusive/annoying way.

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          • My mother’s grandfather was sheriff of a tiny town situated on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. When Welles’ made the Wells broadcast, he for one, was convinced it was an actual news report, enough so that he bundled his entire family into his patrol car, and hid them, hopefully beyond the reach of little green men, in the basement of the county courthouse.

            Perhaps I learned about this from you or someone on the HP site a while back, but there is actually a conversation recorded on film between Welles and Wells in which the infamous broadcast is mentioned.

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            • Wow — what an interesting family story, jhNY. I’ve never actually listened to that “War of the Worlds” broadcast (have you?), but it must have been convincing. I should ask my mother sometime whether she heard it as a girl.

              That Wells-Welles joint radio appearance WAS amazing. It almost felt like two different centuries meeting. And I remember H.G.’s sort of high, small voice not being what I expected. But what a mind he had, and what a writer.

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              • I think as close as I’ve got is excerpts, and probably only of the opening, which mimics a news broadcast– though disclaimers, beforehand, were aired.

                Wells, unfortunately, I haven’t read his most famous stuff– The Time Machine, War of the Worlds– since I was a teen. But I did read The Island of Doctor Moreau only a few years ago– started off extremely well, and looked to be a classic, but I found the ending too abrupt and even forced. Might be because I enjoyed the beginning so much, though…

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                • I also devoured a lot of H.G. Wells’ work many years ago, and then much more recently read “The First Men in the Moon” for the first time and reread “The Time Machine.” The closing pages of the latter novel are among the most haunting I’ve ever read. “The First Men in the Moon” is incredibly inventive and offbeat; I loved it, too. It’s been so long since I read “The Island of Doctor Moreau” that I have almost no memory of it. 😦

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                  • I read The First Men in the Moon for the first time last year. While I really didn’t enjoy the second half, I thought that the getting to the moon was AMAZING. It’s hard to believe that it was written so long ago. The Time Machine, and Dr Moreau are on my re-read list

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                    • The trip to the moon in Wells’ novel (inside that sphere) WAS amazing, Susan. After that, things got even scarier. 🙂

                      There was a period when I was much younger that I read a lot of Wells, Jules Verne, and some more recent sci-fi authors, and their imaginations were awe-inspiring. I still can enjoy almost any time-travel book, even ones that aren’t so great. One of my favorites is Daphne du Maurier’s “The House on the Strand,” in which a man uses drugs to go back in time. Very haunting novel.

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                    • Replying to my own comment because we seemed to have run out of space.

                      I had a problem with the life that Wells created on the moon. In the 21st century it just seemed completely implausible. And he gave them too much backstory and politics and hierarchy and too much I can’t even remember what else, and I got bored. Which is a shame, because I loved the beginning (and the characters), and I’ve loved other works of his. It’s a shame that War of the Worlds is associated with Tom Cruise, because the novel was about so much more than what that terrible movie made it look like. The Invisible Man is another book which surprised me (in a good way) because I was expecting so much less based on other ‘versions’ that I’d seen, read, or heard about. Of course, Wells’ bibliography is ENORMOUS and I’ve only read a tiny portion of it.
                      Am yet to read Verne, though Journey is on my shelf and I will get to it one day.

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                    • Susan, I remember also being surprised at how weird the moon people were in H.G. Wells’ novel, and how intricate their society was. It was indeed a bit over-the-top, yet it somehow worked for me. 🙂

                      Of course, as in a number of other Wells novels and in lots of sci-fi in general, the depiction of life on another world was in part a veiled look at/satire of life on Earth.

                      You’re right that movies based on Wells’ novels don’t do the books enough justice.

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                    • I think you’d love that novel, jhNY. Set in England, the guy who takes the potion ends up in the 14th century (if I’m remembering right) in the very same town he was in during the 20th century. Obviously, things look a lot more rustic, but the 20th-century infrastructure he can’t see while “back in time” is still there — which becomes a major factor in the conclusion.

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    • I hope that there have been no more breakages in your life, Kat Lib 🙂

      I’ve recently finished reading Fahrenheit 451 and what a book. It was my first exposure to Bradbury, but won’t be my last. The story about Fahrenheit 451 was almost as enjoyable as the story itself. Although he was in his 30s, the book is almost a collection of short stories that had been written in his 20s. A very enjoyable read.

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        • I think it’s completely acceptable to break in to your own blog. And yes, you really must 🙂 It’s a very quick and easy read. As one of the ladies at my book club said, he’s very economical with words, unlike someone like Wharton, who will use 4 pages to put on a pair of shoes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that

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          • Thanks, Susan! VERY funny line of yours about Edith Wharton! If she takes four pages, that must mean Henry James takes eight — and those shoes undoubtedly moved from American to Europe or vice versa. 🙂

            Economical with words can often be nice, and I look forward to seeing how Ray Bradbury does that in “Fahrenheit 451”!

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      • Susan, thanks for your good wishes about everything in my condo breaking down all at once. I’m glad that you had a good experience with Ray Bradbury, as I’ve always been convinced that his prose writing is among the finest of any American writer. I especially loved his books about small-town America, such as “Dandelion Wine.”

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  7. Great fun to read your column, Dave, and since I haven’t read The Luminaries, its now on my reading list. Mary Shelley was, of course, a prodigy like her mother, who published her first nonfiction book on education for 18th century girls in 1786, aged 27, and then her first novel, “Mary: a Fiction” a year later. She wrote it as a “lowly” governess for the infamous Anglo-Irish Kingsborough family. I wrote my own (mystery) novel, Midnight Fires, about that experience–but I was way, way beyond my twenties!

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    • Thanks, nancy345wright, for your kind words and excellent/engaging/informative comment! I just changed my blog post to mention Mary Wollstonecraft’s novel; I was so busy concentrating on Mary Shelley’s youthful fiction writing that I originally neglected to mention that her mother preceded her in that! And, of course, as you allude to, Wollstonecraft is perhaps best known for her enduring nonfiction works — including “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.”

      Congratulations on your “Midnight Fires” novel! It sounds intriguing and great.

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  8. Apparently the astrological stuff actually helped structure the book, with each chapter focused on a different sign of the zodiac. And if I remember correctly, the whole story happens over one lunar cycle, with the different phases of the moon also being important? But I completely missed all that the first time around. While I knew that they were being mentioned, I also kind of dismissed them as unimportant. I’m still undecided whether tricks like that were unnecessary and I didn’t see them because I didn’t need them, or whether the book was even more clever than I gave it credit for, and I was just too dumb to appreciate it! Either way, I did really enjoy the story, and I think Anna was also my favourite character. I was reading this while waiting for a friend to see her doctor, but she timed it really badly, because when she walked back into the waiting room, I said, “No! We can’t go now, the prostitute’s just been shot!!”

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    • LOL!!!!! Your waiting-room anecdote was hilarious, Susan. Talk about timing!

      I agree that Anna was the most fascinating character in “The Luminaries,” with Lydia Wells and Ah Sook also in the top five. That novel had perhaps 20 major characters who Eleanor Catton expertly juggled.

      You’re right about the astrological elements helping to structure the book, but I enjoyed “The Luminaries” immensely without paying much attention to those elements.

      Thanks for the interesting and engaging comment!

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  9. Zadie Smith wrote White Teeth at age 25 in 1990. One of the books on my list to read. If I was a ferocious reader like you Dave I would have already read! Depth and breath of life experience could dictate at any age to relate to writing. Ms. Smith being bi-racial would give her a deep understanding of multiple cultures,races. This novel focuses on the relationship between two wartime friends one British the other Bangladeshi.

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    • Well, 25 is indeed young, Michele! I will make it a point to read Zadie Smith when I can; I’ve heard a lot of good/interesting things about her work — including in your great comment above. Thanks!

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  10. One of the most influential French poets of the 19th century ,Arthur Rimbaud didn’t write a single verse after he turned 21. He was also a strange cat even by French writer standards and one wonders if the fascination so many artists from Henry Millar to Dylan Thomas or Bob Dylan and Patti Smith is due to his work or his sordid, strange and romantic life story.

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    • No verse after 21? Wow! I’ve heard of Rimbaud, but never knew much about him. Thankfully, the admirers of him you mention did plenty of writing after their early 20s (although Bob Dylan had his reclusive periods and Patti Smith had that very long stretch out of the spotlight). Nothing like leaving the public eye for creating fascination (whether the leaving is for that purpose or not). Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger, cartoonist Bill Watterson, etc.

      I’ll have to go Wikipedia-ing for Rimbaud after submitting this reply. 🙂

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        • Rimbaud deserves better than to be judged on his biography, as he remains, despite it, one of the most able and truly ground-breaking poets to have arrived in the midst of anybody’s literary scene– upending it, eclipsing it, and getting himself drummed out from its midst simultaneously. He meant to transcend the assumptions resident in Western culture, language, and even the alphabet, and he meant to embrace bete noirs loose in the late age of colonialism, to live among the savages as a savage trained up to the purpose by himself through the disordering of his senses, to leave the old world behind in search of an older, wilder one.

          He is, on the whole, wholly indigestible, though delightfully delicious in parts. He is intensely noxious and strategically repellant throughout much of what he wrote, devoting himself to scatologies and vulgar insults far too often for anybody’s taste. Where some night have been content to supply a turd for the punchbowl, Rimbaud, jumped in, as such, himself. Anyone owning his complete works has much to be revolted by.

          BUT he wrote great– truly great– things too– most readers and admirers would list “Illuminations” and “The Drunken Boat” foremost. Rather than wonder whether or not seeking him out is worth doing, try this:

          http://www.mag4.net/Rimbaud/poesies/Boat.html

          The Drunken Boat. A few pages only. Just read it again today, in preparation for writing what you read here. Fabulous. As ever.

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          • jhNY, thanks for the link. That is a mesmerizing poem, with incredibly rich language.

            Thanks also for the home run of a comment about Rimbaud. The more I think about that writer, the more I’m astounded at his eerie, precocious talent coupled with his…I’m not sure of the word…obnoxiousness? Sort of a punk rocker before his time, though I’ve admired many punk rockers rather than find them obnoxious!

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            • Glad you enjoyed The Drunken Boat. It’s one of my very favorite poems.
              I can sorta see it–the punk rock allusion- he’s a Sid Vicious only with prodigious talent, and a smaller appetite for self-destruction.

              I am lucky enough to have known a man who, in his enthusiasm for Rimbaud, had the bright idea, in the ’60’s, to contact surviving members of his family and inquire about photographs. He was sold an early copy of the one you nearly always see– when Rimbaud was about 19 and empty-eyed– and he in turn, made a copy for me! Got it around here someplace….

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              • Yes, few punk rockers (with some exceptions such as The Clash and Patti Smith) could write lyrics even in the distant neighborhood of Rimbaud’s verse. My comparison, as you know, was more attitude- than talent-related.

                That Rimbaud photo thing — nice! You really know how/where to seek out/find great stuff!

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    • Donny, I didn’t know there was anyone else that was actually aware of Rimbaud (I still have my 1961 paperback edition of a French/English edition of “A Season in Hell” and “The Drunken Boat.”) I know that there was a verse of the former that struck my fancy, but I can’t remember it today, which is unfortunately most of the time!

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      • Kat, I had a girlfriend many, many years ago who worshiped Jim Morrison, me not so much on the whole Doors thing, anyway she half believed old Jim was still alive running guns or some such nonsense in Africa . The logic for this was that Morrison was a huge fan of Rimbaud and his turning his back on his art at such a young age to live a romantic life of adventure. It seems to me that was never going to work out for either of them but it got me interested in the French poet. As for your last line, I have forgotten far more verse than I could ever remember and almost daily have cause to give thanks to the great god google!

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        • Very interesting, Donny. I was also a big fan of The Doors, and I saw them in concert many years ago. They put on a great show, but I never once knew about a connection between Jim Morrison and Rimbaud! Thanks for the reference, as I find these things fascinating.

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  11. Dave, a difficult topic to tackle. Many of the more well known authors I read or have read published first in their 30s. A large segment of the young adult authors publish their first book in their 20s and I couldn’t list all the ones I’ve read here, but Veronica Roth, author of the “Divergent” trilogy is probably the most well known.

    Terry Pratchett was first published at 23 with “The Carpet People” a very good book. Neil Gaiman published his first fiction book at 30 “Good Omens” though he had been writing comic books for many years and had published a biography of Duran Duran at 24.

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    • Great point about YA authors, GL. A larger percentage of them must indeed start their novel-writing careers earlier than authors of fiction aimed at adults. John Green is one example of that in the YA genre — though his biggest hit, “The Fault in Our Stars” — was published in his 30s.

      Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (two of your recommended authors I STILL have to get to) are excellent examples of young-starting writers!

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      • This makes me think of Christopher Paolini who wrote Eragon while in his teens. I’ve read the first three books in the Inheritance series. They’re ok, not great. But Paolini has certainly been successful, and I think writing those books, and getting them published at such a young age is certainly an achievement.

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        • GL, thanks for that journalism mention! As was discussed under an earlier blog post, a number of excellent novelists (in addition to Gaiman and Pratchett) worked as journalists: Twain, Hemingway, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Geraldine Brooks, etc.!

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          • Susan, I heard about those Christopher Paolini books — and understand they were kind of long and involved, especially for such a young writer. I’m not surprised that they were okay and not great; I’m not sure even a brilliant teen can write a classic novel.

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  12. I was thinking of Stephen Crane. Limited body of work begs the question, what might have he accomplished? (Dave, did you know he, like myself, was born in Newark?)

    Fitzgerald, of course. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is judged by some to be his best and nothing that came after equaled it. Generally speaking, writers and non-writers in their 20s have a lot of growing up and a lot to learn. But sometimes pure genius makes up for and exceeds those deficiencies.

    John Kennedy Toole (31, committed suicide), had his only novel (Confederacy of Dunces) published posthumously. Won a Pulitzer 12 years after his death.

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    • Joe, coincidentally I’m in the middle of reading “A Confederacy of Dunces” for the first time (about a third of the way through). It’s hilarious, but it brings up the age-old question of how much one can love a novel in which the protagonist is rather unlikable. Still, the unkind, self-centered, irresponsible slob Ignatius is an amazing creation — and it’s impressive how young John Kennedy Toole was when writing that novel. Also “impressive” was how stupid so many publishers were to reject the book while Toole was alive. If it wasn’t for his never-give-up mother’s efforts after his suicide…

      I did not know that Stephen Crane and you were born in Newark! I believe Philip Roth is also from that city, which is a 15-minute car ride from my apartment. One of my favorite “popular fiction” books — Darryl Brock’s baseball/time travel page-turner “If I Never Get Back” — has some scenes in Newark.

      I prefer Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” over “The Sun Also Rises”; just one person’s opinion. 🙂

      Your two lines about 20-something authors make a lot of sense — and I appreciate your great comment in general!

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      • So glad that you’re reading A Confederacy of Dunces, Dave. Whenever anybody mentions unlikeable characters, I automatically think Ignatius (and his mother). And I’m obviously not on my own, as I know that a lot of your commenters bring up Toole’s book as well. I can’t think of any other characters that I can dislike so much, and yet empathise with at the same time. It’s such a shame that John Kennedy Toole wasn’t recognised until it was way too late.

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        • You’re right, Susan, that one does feel a little sympathy for Ignatius (and even more sympathy for his mother). And I guess the way John Kennedy Toole depicts Ignatius — as kind of a wise fool looking at society from outside it — has a satirical function as well.

          I totally agree about how unfortunate it was that Toole and his novel didn’t get any recognition until after he died.

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          • Susan, I finished “A Confederacy of Dunces” last night, and thought John Kennedy Toole ended the novel quite well — with so many major things happening to the various characters.

            I still think Ignatius is mostly unlikable — a “moocher,” a narcissist, a liar, etc. But, as we discussed, one does sympathize with him at times, and he is incredibly smart — as well as wisely cynical about much of the way the world operates. And the novel IS hilarious.

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  13. After re-reading Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights recently and reading the Tenant of Wildfell Hall for the first time, I am newly and profoundly astounded by the sophistication of these works! These Bronte “girls” were barely more than girls and they lived such secluded lives that they DID have time for writing, but how did they manage to write with such eloquence, given the fact that their lives WERE so secluded? Their words were so rich and their plots so complicated that it makes you wonder where they came up with fodder for their stories.

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    • Great question, Mary, and eloquently put! Some combination of hard work and mysterious genius. From what I’ve read about the Brontes, their novels contained some fictionalized autobiographical elements (the sisters’ lives were mostly secluded but they did go “out in the world” at times). But so much involved their amazing imaginations.

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  14. Bret Easton Ellis wrote Lass Than Zero when he was less than 22 rocketing him to literary super stardom in the somewhat culturally barren 80s, unfortunately the novel is actually less than readable unless one finds pampered rich kids with serious nose candy problems interesting.

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    • That’s right, Donny! Bret Easton Ellis was a “young phenom.” I never read his debut novel for the reasons you mentioned. His “American Psycho” held no interest for me, either.

      Nicely stated comment!

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    • Absolutely my pleasure, Dave. I agree that the book didn’t end quite as well as it started, but fortunately, the end was a lot shorter than the beginning. I had to rush through the end for my book club, so I’m sure I missed a lot. I watched a TV review a few months after I’d read it, and the panellists all talked about the interesting pacing, and the lunar cycle and the astrological importance, all of which I had completely missed! I think this has to be on my re-read list, but it certainly won’t be for a while.

      I had no idea that Mary Shelly was so young when she wrote Frankenstein. In fact, for some reason, I thought she was quite a bit older. When I think about what I was doing in my early twenties, I know that I would have struggled just to READ a book like that!

      Nice to see the reappearance of Jane in your blogs, and glad to hear that you enjoyed The Luminaries 🙂

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      • Thanks for the kind words and the terrific comment, Susan!

        The chapters indeed got much shorter toward the end of “The Luminaries.” And I agree that the book had interesting pacing. I only vaguely noted the astrological stuff myself, but I don’t think it was important to the novel except as kind of an offbeat author thing. Overall, a truly tremendous book. I wonder what Eleanor Catton will do for an encore?

        Hilarious line about Mary Shelley’s age and your age! Yes, how many of us in our early 20s wrote novels that will be remembered nearly two centuries later and helped give Boris Karloff a Hollywood career? 🙂

        Last by not least, you’re right that “Jane Eyre” had not been in my columns enough lately! If I only could get some virtual heath into this blog…

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