F. Scott Fitzgerald could never quite get over his youth. He had managed so fully to take part in its opportunities that everything in adulthood savored of anticlimax. From his first days at Princeton—“the best country club in the world”—to the success of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, he experienced everything that custom entitles young people to experience, no matter how stupid or ridiculous it may be.
His feat is that so many of these experiences are contradictory. Charmed with his twee good looks and enormous publishing luck, Fitzgerald is our epitome of the romantic idealist. Yet he began his novel in Army training camp in a state of wild nihilism, entirely expecting to die in the trenches of World War I. This Side of Paradise was twice rejected by Scribners; Zelda Sayre rejected his marriage proposal. Here was plenty of pretext for an epic bender, and Fitzgerald grabbed it. Then, with the ability only enjoyed by the young to snap like a light switch from one extreme to another, he dried out, moved back to his parent’s house, rewrote his book in six months (effectively from scratch as it had previously been in the first person), sold it, and, with the new funds of money and confidence, convinced Zelda to marry him. Reckless intemperance, ascetic industry, fatalism, rose-tinted romance, heartbreak, triumph—he had all of that in the space of a couple of years.
But the characterization that marks him as a man of letters in that time is still Edna St. Vincent Millay’s deathless smear of him as “a stupid old lady with whom someone has left a priceless diamond.” He seemed to be clueless and brilliant all at once, and able to harvest both the blisses of naiveté and the glories of intuitive talent. Edmund Wilson was making much the same point when he wrote that “This Side of Paradise commits almost every sin that a novel can possibly commit: but it does not commit the unpardonable sin: it does not fail to live.” In essence, it’s a good book, despite being bad.
Millay and Wilson were perhaps too harsh (they were, after all, young people too), but the assessment of This Side of Paradise as an entertaining shambles stands up still. Reading it is a little bit like leafing through a scrapbook album: the wonderfully embellished scenes jump from one to another with little more than chronological coherence so that we get a wandering, imagistic overview of the main character, Amory Blaine, and of his time and place, but no story in which we are specifically taken anywhere.
The snapshots themselves are vibrant and often hilariously satirical, especially at the start. Here is Amory’s boastful effort to win his first kiss: “‘I’m diff’runt. I don’t know why I make faux pas. ’Cause I don’t care, I s’pose.’ Then, recklessly: ‘I been smoking too much. I’ve got t’bacca heart.’” Best of all are the fond, mocking pictures of stuck-up Princeton undergrads before the Great War, glimpses of narcissism in all its grasping glory:
“As [Amory] put in his studs he realized that he was enjoying life as he would probably never enjoy it again. Everything was hallowed by the haze of his own youth. He had arrived, abreast of the best in his generation at Princeton. He was in love and his love was returned. Turning on all the lights he looked at himself in the mirror, trying to find in his own face the qualities that made him see clearer than the great crowd of people, that made him decide firmly and able to influence and follow his own will. There was little in life now that he would have changed…. Oxford might have been a bigger field….”
But when Fitzgerald attempts to deepen his book, with a series of operatic love affairs and heavy servings of maudlin political theory, it falls apart in fairly spectacular fashion.
Yet This Side of Paradise was a huge success and with it Fitzgerald accomplished everything he had intended. It isn’t extreme to say that writing a great novel had never figured very large on his agenda. The novel had to be good enough that Scribner’s—and more to the point, Maxwell Perkins—would agree to publish it, but because Perkins was hedging on Fitzgerald’s unharnessed talent, “good enough” just meant “not a disaster.” (Perkins had to threaten to quit before Scribner’s accepted the book.) The array of motives that instead drove Fitzgerald included the desire to leave proof of his genius in case he died at war; to portray his generation and thereby become a spokesman for it; to become famous and to make money; and, perhaps most importantly, to win a woman. With the resulting lively, sloppy flapper montage he attained all these things at the age of twenty-three.
Every novel is the product of the author’s motives in creating it. The motives of the young, the unestablished, and the undiscovered novelist are almost always prescribed by the natures of youth and ambition. Young novelists write to make names for themselves. Like Byron, Fitzgerald may have woken up one morning and found himself famous, but for him and the authors of other auspicious early works, such a morning didn’t arrive accidentally.
When, at the age of twenty-five, Herman Melville made landfall in New York in 1844 after four years at sea, he was in a unique position to write a popular book. His experiences living among primitive pagans were singular enough that merely to relate them to a readership beguiled by depictions of “noble savages” would ensure big sales. Typee, a fictionalized expansion of Melville’s three-to-four week residence in the South Pacific islands called the Marquesas, made him immediately famous and would prove to be his best-selling title during his lifetime.
Typee is an episodic anthropology book as much as a fictional story—A Peep at Polynesian Life, as Melville subtitled it—and it exploits the liberty that social scientists enjoy when they write provocative stuff: documentary trumps decorum. “He has stated such matter just as they occurred,” Melville writes of his intentions in the preface, “and leaves everyone to form his own opinion concerning them; trusting that his anxious desire to speak the unvarnished truth will gain for him the confidence of the reader.” The conceit that he was a mere chronicler of “unvarnished truth” gave him the impunity to describe at lyrical lengths, among other things, promiscuous olive-skinned women in various stages of undress.
Foremost of Typee women is the beautiful Fayaway, the lover of Tommo, the American sailor who has fled his ship; Fayaway, who “clung to the primitive and summer garb of Eden.” In Typee we are given vivid scenes of Fayaway swimming nymph-like in pellucid pools, standing naked at a canoe’s prow using her shawl as a sail, and sobbing brokenheartedly when Tommo leaves the island. If all that weren’t enough to inflame the imaginations of petticoated Calvinists, Melville explains that the Typee practiced polygamy, and in such a way that, extraordinarily, the women had the “plurality of husbands.”
Cannibalism is another shocking aspect of the book and Melville presents a lurid little tableau of two skeletons “with particles of flesh clinging to them.” But he conceivably generated the most uproar by taking to the pulpit to declaim against Christian missionaries in the Pacific isles:
“Among the islands of Polynesia, no sooner are the images overturned, the temples demolished, and the idolaters converted into nominal Christians than disease, vice, and premature death make their appearance. The depopulated land is then recruited from the rapacious hordes of enlightened individuals who settle themselves within its borders and clamorously announce the progress of Truth.”
This passage, and others unfriendly to the spirit of evangelism, was bowdlerized in later printings of Typee, but by then Melville had already won a reputation not only as a yarn-spinner but as an unblushing documentarian with the brio to report on the parts of the world (and the human anatomy) that his elders prudishly omitted. (Of course, Melville would not always be young. Before dying he left written instructions for a new edition of his first book, excising some of the controversial excerpts and substituting “Desolate Island” for the rather more colorfully named “Buggerry Island.”)
“Unvarnished truth” is the armor with which young people protect themselves when they attack conventional morality. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, which Stephen Crane published in 1893 at the age of twenty-two, is a lasting example of the power of shock appeal clothed as social commentary.
What was shocking about Maggie was that it portrayed a Bowery girl’s fall from grace while maintaining that she was innocent of sin and driven to her fate by the surrounding circumstances of poverty, ignorance, and drunkenness. Thus the book is a realistic showcase for the vice and violence of the slums, which is described in elevated, at times even anachronistic, diction. Crane’s striking style, which he cut to perfection in The Red Badge of Courage, is a hybrid of florid vernacular (“T’hell wid yehs! An’ who deh hell are yehs? I ain’t givin’ a snap of me fingers for yehs”) and hard, compact classical prose (“The arms of the combatants whirled in the air like flails. The faces of the men, at first flushed to flame-colored anger, now began to fade to the pallor of warriors in the blood of a battle”). Crane’s use of Homeric epithets for his back-alley characters and the references to ancient epics that appear throughout Maggie are often considered tongue-in-cheek, but they also have the effect of investing bar fights and prostitution with the kind of formal seriousness that had until then been reserved for more respectable subjects.
Crane lived in lower Manhattan, frequented the Bowery and often spent his afternoons watching suspects get booked in the downtown courthouse: like Melville, he could defend himself from denunciation by claiming that he merely wrote what he saw, not what he imagined. The truth, however, is that Crane began Maggie in his Delta Upsilon fraternity house at Syracuse University. In Christopher Benfey’s words (from The Double Life of Stephen Crane), “Maggie apparently served as a preliminary sketch for what Crane expected to find in the city.” He expected to find material sufficiently shocking to attract attention to himself.
In this Crane succeeded. He self-published Maggie (under a pseudonym, which is a way to deflect criticism while still absorbing praise) and flogged it aggressively, finally managing to get it on the desk of the era’s literary gray eminence, William Dean Howells. Many of the copies of the book were hand-presented, and more than one bear the following inscription (or a variation on it), which Crane had obviously prepared in advance:
It is inevitable that you be greatly shocked by this book but continue, please, with all possible courage to the end. For, it tries to show that environment is a tremendous thing in the world and frequently shapes lives regardless. If one proves that theory, one makes room in Heaven for all sorts of souls, notably an occasional street girl, who are not expected to be there by many excellent people.
It is probable that the reader of this small thing may consider the author to be a bad man, but obviously, that is a matter of small consequence to the author.
It’s easy to detect here Crane’s willful roguishness, his pleasure in being the “bad man” who had written a book so vulgar and daring that he could not safely put his name to it. It’s easy to see, mingled with real artistic aspirations, the rebellious pose he assumed to gain a reputation.
* * *
Taboos are meat and drink for young writers because they are irrational (inasmuch as people accept them without thinking or reasoning) and therefore represent the weakest points in the foundation of an old order. Violating them has always been the surest way to get your face on TV. But the recognition that comes from shocking the public is not necessarily a hollow acquisition: nearly all young people, especially those with outsized talents, want their work to move them to the van of a new and improved order. Fame and contribution to the public good can be overlapping ambitions, so long as neither has been realized or practically understood.
Taboos against language have of course made profanity the sacred property of young writers, and you can sense the slightly belabored emphasis on the isolated curses in Main Street and The Sun Also Rises, when realist forerunners like Crane, and especially the generational participation in World War I, had justified the offense the words would give. (“I want my sonsofbitches,” John Dos Passos snarled at the editor who was trying to cut them from his standout second book, Three Soldiers.)
But the defining taboos of Western civilization—certainly, at least, since the novel has existed—are those that form a spiked palisade around the subject of sex. Only by relating Typee to its coevals—the studiously sexless novels of Charles Dickens and James Fenimore Cooper—can we appreciate the sensation that even its strictly circumstantial reportage of free love must have incited. Young novelists have broken baffling Victorian sex codes without especially meaning to, which seems to have been the case when twenty-nine year old Theodore Dreiser tried to publish Sister Carrie in 1900. The book’s frank treatment of adultery apparently disturbed publisher Frank Doubleday, who called it “immoral” and only published it under legal obligation. Given that it was written after Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, Sister Carrie could only have scandalized a ludicrously touchy audience; Dreiser’s crime, evidently, was that he didn’t make his adulterous heroine kill herself at the end of the book. (In a twist, this is the fate he gives to the man.)
The City and the Pillar, by Gore Vidal, made the best-seller list in 1948 and can be looked at as a kind of axis around which American twentieth century fiction has turned, midway between the publication of Henry Miller’s publication of The Tropic of Cancer in France in 1934 and its publication in the US in 1961. The City and the Pillar was a cause celebre, as Vidal, who was twenty-three at its release, knew it would be. Vidal had already written two stylized, melodic novels (he had hoped to gain his reputation as a crafter of beautiful prose) that had been praised, but in a frustratingly faint manner. For this simple story about a man obsessed with reliving a sexual encounter he had had with another man as a teenager, Vidal adopted a painstakingly curt and monotone mode of expression:
“What the fuck are you doing?” The voice was hard. Jim could not speak. Obviously the world was ending. His hand remained frozen where it was. Bob pushed him. But he could not move.
In many ways The City and the Pillar is the boldest book that a young person has written to win notoriety. Vidal had no means of staying aloof from his material: the novel is purely imaginative, without any journalism or dispassionate argument in which he could have taken shelter. As a grandson of a senator, he was courting greater scandal than another writer might receive, yet he used no pseudonym. (The only protection he secured was a favorable blurb from Christopher Isherwood, whose imprimatur Vidal somewhat frantically sought before the novel was published.) But most of all, homosexual sex was (and perhaps remains) the fiercest, most abiding taboo in the world. In The City and the Pillar, Vidal deliberately exposed it under the bland, clinical light of plainspoken prose.
He didn’t do much else with the book, however. Whereas we can enjoy Typee and Maggie for their authors’ embryonic prose styles (Melville’s Shakespearian, Crane’s Homeric), The City and the Pillar, with its purposefully muted voice, does not offer much more than its central shocking event, which is no longer very shocking. It is often the case, we will see, that young writers’ single-minded efforts to grab attention ultimately flatten their artistry and stunt the development of their stories.
The currency of sex for young writers has drastically depreciated over the last twenty-five years, because established novelists such as John Updike, John Irving, and Philip Roth have made it, through their ceaseless iterations, not only pedestrian but grimly tedious. From time to time there are still upstart attempts to provoke a Pavlovian moue of discomfort in the reader—In Everything is Illuminated, twenty-five year old Jonathan Safran Foer made a character roger a woman with his withered arm—but to shock you must look to the other sensitivities of your time. Three Soldiers, with its pitilessly cynical view of Army life, very much burnishing the triumphant afterglow of World War I in America, was called “a nationwide insult” by The New York Times. A second Times reviewer wrote, “Perhaps it is malicious to point out, but the paper cover surrounding Three Soldiers is of an intense, passionate yellow.” (Three Soldiers is superb, however, because it was written not in a calculated effort to strike a nerve, but off the energy of Dos Passos’s barely-restrained rage.)
The powerful 1974 book about a Bronx street gang, The Wanderers, written by Richard Price when he was twenty-five, handled, with almost ostentatious indelicacy, the issue of racism. 1974 was a watershed year for the furor over mandatory busing, among other things; in The Wanderers, the word “nigger” appears six times on the first two pages, like heralding trumpet blasts. Price’s book may have been something of a harbinger. Today, the censoring angel that hovers over the shoulder of both readers and writers whispers the rules of political correctness; our artistic taboos are sociological. It may not be for another decade, but eventually a spate of twenty-three year olds will arrive to the book world in storms of controversy for having flouted the cautious and circumlocutive forms that nearly everyone honors today when touching on race or gender.
* * *
To be young and possessed of that quality unhelpfully called “potential” is to feel that the future of everything about you—your professional success, your influence on the world, even your identity in the eyes of history—is in your control. In making your work you are also making yourself, the person you would like to be known as. For an aspiring artist, the fact that personal and professional achievement are joined at the hip is especially significant. Young writers are the most vociferous about their quest for some notion of aesthetic perfection, yet they pursue that goal not with lonely, abstemious, steadily refining industry but with extroverted, attention-grabbing careerism.
Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead is one of the outstanding examples of a work of fiction that is also, to paraphrase another Mailer book, an advertisement for the author. It’s a great novel that doubles as a spectacular resume.
The Naked and the Dead’s enduring excellence hinges on the strength of its central action: on an island in the Pacific during World War II, a squad is detached from its division and sent on an expeditionary mission to discover a point of attack in the Japanese flank. The squad proceeds on a tortuous, fatal ascent of a mountain that stands between it and the enemy. Etched in fine, minutely detailed prose, the squad’s tense, agonizing climb—and the simultaneous return two men must make with a gutshot man on a stretcher—is a suspenseful and harrowing tour de force.
But surrounding this mainline narrative is an astonishing exfoliation of verbiage, some of it interesting, much of it superfluous. Mailer, borrowing extravagantly from Dos Passos, creates a narrative device he calls “The Time Machine,” with which he expatiates on the background of each member of the squad to form an expanding, crosshatching storyline like that which Dos Passos brought to full expression in USA. We consequently get the fully-fleshed backstories of a Brooklyn Jew, a Midwestern Protestant, a Mexican immigrant, a South Boston Irishman, and a Polish-American cabbie; there is an old-moneyed General, who allows Mailer to demonstrate his command of military theory; there is an outcast intellectual, and with him disquisitions on Spengler and Nietzsche; there is even a scene, utterly tangential to the plot, that enters the consciousness of a Japanese exile.
The effect is encyclopedic: the reader is encouraged to feel—is, in fact, stunned into the conclusion—that the twenty-five year old author knows everything. Phenoms shall be recognized by their excesses—and by their ability to simulate the wisdom that can only actually be earned through experience.
Given some kind of theoretical validation by postmodernism, excess has been the hallmark of breakout young writers in the recent decades. Zadie Smith was also twenty-five when White Teeth was published and made her famous. This novel has virtually no plot at all under its heap of digressions and time-shifting divagations. With its rogues’ gallery of diverse characters, each blaringly identified by his or her name—Archie, the white war veteran; Clara, the black Caribbean woman; Samad, the Bangladeshi Muslim; Mickey, the Irish bartender—and its clangorous chorus of dialects, White Teeth has been celebrated for inhabiting the full spectrum of the multicultural West. Add to that Smith’s affinity for the sweeping pronouncement (“It’s about time people told the truth about beautiful women,” she writes, and then, of course, goes on to be the one to finally do so) and you have a young writer who wows the critics as much with the apparent profundity of her understanding as with the wide range of all she understands.
Twenty-nine year old Marisha Pessl wrote last year’s breakthrough debut, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which, from its obscure title to the legion of interpolations from real and invented textbooks, is a kind of ad absurdum endgame of encyclopedic fiction. Pessl, through her logorrheic narrator, strenuously projects the impression that she’s actually read the entire World Book. All this indiscriminate piling up of information, this need to prove immense knowledge no matter the irrelevancy of the knowledge, reaches its logical culmination in the book’s coda: the reader is given a final exam.
* * *
As a rule, young writers have read relatively little, but are more deeply inspired by the books they have read. Smith was influenced by David Foster Wallace; Price troped Hubert Selby Jr.; Vidal summoned Hemingway; Fitzgerald parodied Compton McKenzie. (“When I was twenty-one and began This Side of Paradise,” he said, “my literary taste was so unformed that [McKenzie’s] Youth’s Encounter was still my perfect book.”) It would be sensible, then, to conclude that when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, before she had even turned nineteen, she was immensely influenced by the literary great who also happened to be her husband. Percy Shelley was older than Mary, had eloped with her and thereby estranged her from her father, and, by abandoning his first wife (who later killed herself), had proven pretty clearly that he was a rake capable of stepping out on Mary at any given time. Mary, therefore, was inclined to write a book that would please her husband, capture his imagination, and inculcate his most strongly held beliefs. Percy’s “delight in the weird, the horrific and the awful,” Muriel Spark writes in her biography Mary Shelley, “was enough to intensify Mary’s own interest in such themes.” This is not to detract from Mary’s authorship (Frankenstein’s strongest attribute is the framing device around the narrative, which allows for so much complex irony and parallelism), only to note that her book’s themes and particularly its overwrought tone dovetails with her husband’s voice.
The case of the Shelleys may be in some ways singular, but as a motivating factor in creative writing, relationships always play a towering role for the young. Sometimes the motivation is to impress a mate; more often it’s to attract one. Sexual posturing is a recognized, even celebrated, component of poetry (as well as of music, painting, fashion, and acting), yet it is rarely taken into account in the criticism of prose. It ought to be, of course. The wondrous energy with which young novelists pursue the grails of publication and notoriety is really only what they have left over from the far more consuming sport of attracting a desirable spouse or lover. It’s inevitable that twenty-somethings would shape their writing styles with an eye to winning a mate; twenty-somethings do everything with an eye to winning a mate.
Because there’s no category in fiction akin to love poetry (romance novels and chick-lit seem too locked in their genres to really compare), the sexual jockeying here typically appears sub rosa, embedded in the flourishes of style; often it seems quite unconscious. Presumably twenty-four year old Leo Tolstoy did not write his first book Childhood with the express intention of fluttering the hearts of women. But the habit of flirtation was strong with Tolstoy, and in the slightly precious and credulous vignettes that comprise the book are visible traces of dashing banquet banter and practiced sweet nothings:
Much water has flowed since [I watched the holy fool Grisha in prayer], many memories of the past have lost their meaning for me and become dim recollections, even pilgrim Grisha has long since completed his last pilgrimage; but the impression he made on me and the feeling he evoked will never die in my memory.
Fiction as flirtation, as coquetry, can have all the variety of pick-up lines. The most identifiable style, however, must be the Byronic attitude, that of the sensitive rebel, miscast in conventional society, outwardly flawed but with a core of passionate, unimpeachable ideals, and reveling, loudly, in melancholia. Childe Harolds proliferate the fictive universes of young writers in the shape of brilliant, self-deprecating, misunderstood, confused, and unsettled heroes, attractive in their earnestness and profound in their sadness. The characters are in fact embodiments of pick-up lines and off-campus party poses. In 2005 thirty-two-year-old Benjamin Kunkel (masquerading as a twenty-two year old) published his debut Indecision, in which nearly every page contained the kind of sensitive, adorable blather you might overhear in a bar from a post-grad trying to gull a woman back to his studio apartment:
It often seemed at night that I would make a better dog owner than boyfriend. It wasn’t apparent to me how best to treat Vaneetha, each woman being so different, whereas every dog, in spite of the really incredible variety of species, required more or less the same regimen of food and water, walks and affectionate pats on the head. However in the city it actually exacted a lot less responsibility to have a girlfriend than a dog. And I really wanted one or the other, since like any person, or dog, I too craved affection. Hmn.
And, really, what else are the superfluities in Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius—the self-effacing preface, the twenty-odd pages of acknowledgments, the charts and drawing, the precocious gags, the rambling corrections and addenda, the cute photograph of the author’s brother on the rear cover—what else is all that stuff except dazzling and gratuitous peacock plumage?
* * *
Whatever you might think of it, despite (or because of) its thinly-veiled ulterior purposes to get its author laid, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius has, in the last ten years, come the closest of any publication to replicating the starmaking success of This Side of Paradise. Both books are generational bellwethers, and both aspired in comparative ways to the honor. The first-person plural pronoun that shows up all over Eggers’s book (especially in the supplement about the book’s composition, “Mistakes We Knew We Were Making”) makes it clear that the material for the memoir was vetted before a panel of culture-savvy young people, like the contents of a magazine. This was a book marketed to be topical and cutting edge. It’s most forcible quality, furthermore, is its hyperactive energy—its run-on sentences and italicization and jubilant swearing: it too “does not fail to live.”
And the result, once again, is an amorphous organism with no internal structure. The storyline of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius collapses shortly after the first chapter and, with no narrative propulsion there is nothing but the sheer precocious will of the author to drag us through one scattershot episode to another. Even Eggers’s formidable precocity is powerless by the end of his book. Endings can’t be faked. It’s here that a book’s conflicts, themes, and plot strands must be tied together in some significant way; earlier flaws are magnified; every writerly sin, whether of omission or commission, is reckoned up. If there are too many sins and not enough momentum to carry the story through to a meaningful conclusion, the ending will fizzle.
Fitzgerald and Eggers try to fake their endings with sound and fury, a similar sort of poetic melodrama and pseudophilosophical screed. “He stretched out his arms to the crystalline, radiant sky,” Fitzgerald writes of Amory Blaine, “‘I know myself,’ he cried, ‘but that is all—” “Don’t you know that I am connected to you? Don’t you know that I’m trying to pump blood to you, that this is for you, that I hate you people, so many of you motherfuckers,” Eggers writes, and finishes, “Oh do it, do it, you motherfuckers, do it do it you fuckers finally, finally, finally.”
Eggers wrote a memoir, and a memoir, perhaps, is not supposed to tell a story as a novel is. (Although that begs the disconcerting question of what a memoir is supposed to do.) But I would argue that Eggers, who has since published only fiction, wrote a memoir as his breakout work partly as a means of avoiding the challenges of having to tell a story. Early books are characterized by their authors’ proactive ambitions, yes, but finally they are also defined by the rearguard defensive maneuvers writers take to cover up their greatest vulnerability: not knowing how to construct an effective plot.
My own testimony may be helpful here. I’m a young writer too, and I’ve also written toward the lure of publication. I’ve written in a reaction to the complacent books of established novelists; I’ve written with the misanthropic urge to violate stupid taboos; I’m written with the subliminal—or even overt—wish to show off how very smart I am; and I’ve written, I’m sure, to satisfy the aesthetic standards of my libido.
But an overweening contingency that absolutely determines the way I write every time I sit at my desk is a hopeless sense of ignorance about the big picture of my novel. I have framed scenes before; I have, however inexpertly, introduced characters, described settings, fine-tuned dialogue, stage-managed transitions, and even plotted toward a payoff ending. But until I began my first novel I had never needed to make a connection between the scene on page twenty-two and a scene that would eventually appear on page 315. It has been hardly possible for me to even conceive what writing 500 pages entails, much less write them with palpable organization.
That my experience is and has been shared by other young writers is demonstrated, I think, by the unstructured nature of so much early work. Large-scale blueprinting is simply beyond the competence of neophytes, even those with brilliant sensibilities—even, perhaps, those with genius. Most of the books discussed in this essay are episodic, patchworks of disparate scenes only fragilely sewn together by cogent narrative. Tolstoy’s Childhood is simply a gathering of character sketches and sentimental memories. Maggie’s thin (albeit controversial) plot is hardly more than an excuse for Crane’s Bowery slum set pieces. Often these works, such as Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories and Price’s The Wanderers, are just as easily considered collections of stories with recurring themes and characters. T.C. Boyle has called his first novel, Water Music, “500 pages of stories all threaded together in 104 chapters.” (Boyle deserves credit, however, for making the whole of the book even greater than the sum of its stories.) Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, regardless of its deserved immortality, is a disjointed panorama that presaged the unruly sprawl that has since become de rigueur in postmodern fiction.
When there is a plot in a young writer’s book it is usually a simple one. Just as The Naked and the Dead ultimately resolves itself to the circumscribed movements of a squad going up and down a mountain, The City and the Pillar travels inexorably to a single, predetermined climax. Even Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping—two grand and freakishly mature debuts—are essentially unidirectional. (Both have fantastically accomplished endings as well.)
There are exceptions, naturally. Michael Chabon’s terrific first novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, for instance, has a modest but craftily intricate network of stories. But in the vast majority of cases young novelists write with severe nearsightedness, raptly focused on the scene before them and blind to the larger landscape of the book. And so the assorted pyrotechnics on which these novels thrive—the shock value, the cultural exposes, the quiz-show intelligence, the artsy embroidery, the gimmickry, the cuteness, the whole publicity-snagging performance on display—are a means of compensating for and distracting from the large hole where there should be the sturdy backbone of a plot.
The performance, it must be said, tends to persuade readers and critics to overlook the failings. Moreover, the popularity of these books, no matter their flaws, is usually abetted by the beggar’s banquet of boring releases from older writers who no longer have anything to prove. Readers are hungry for vitality and will forgive any number of vices when they find it.
Although it serves nobody’s interest to gloss over weaknesses, it is of course right to give latitude to promising talent—there’s no justice in condemning the inexperienced for their inexperience. But standards can only be relaxed to a point; the trouble comes when the popularity of a young writer’s book is accepted as evidence that the book is actually good. This essay has been hard on F. Scott Fitzgerald in light of his feckless youth, but it remains to be said that he went on to write two legitimately great, if less popular, novels. The proof of the craftsmanship to which he devoted himself (in fits and starts and between binges and breakdowns, but nevertheless) is found in contrasting the ending of This Side of Paradise to the iconic last line of The Great Gatsby or, even more, to the moving and unforgettable final chapters of Tender is the Night.
You can only break onto the scene once, and that triumphal entry can sometimes be a Pyrrhic victory. In time the rumor and overkill that greeted a debut starts to cling only to the book itself, as though it had been a kind of adventitious occurrence; the book’s author becomes just another writer. Still, these are the writers who promise the most. They have half of the character traits that every great book must possess: ambition, animation, verve, and bravado. The other necessary traits include discipline, restraint, subtlety, and patience. Acquiring these, without losing the others, seems to be the challenge that separates the grown-ups from the children.
Sam Sacks was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Atlantic, Harper's, The Weekly Standard, The New Republic, Commentary, and the New Yorker. He writes the weekly Fiction Chronicle for the Wall Street Journal.