Youth, Accomplishment, and Writers

Two weeks ago, I attended the World Science Fiction Convention in Denver. While I was there, I became aware of a debate, instigated, it appeared, by younger writers and readers, who, if I understand the issues, were concerned about the fact that very little recognition and not many F&SF awards were going to “younger writers,” i.e., those under forty.

Human accomplishments tend to be age-related, and how great they are at what age depends on the field, although there are certainly individual exceptions. Reputedly, very few mathematicians make their greatest mark after age 35, although recognition may lag for years. Certainly, very few athletes are world class past around age forty, Dara Torres excepted, particularly gymnasts. Opera singers tend to peak in their forties, but pop singers usually burn out their voices earlier. Finance analysts seldom remain at the top of that game past forty.

On the other hand, writers usually do not do their best work young — unless it is a single book that they never surpass, and I can only think of a handful of writers who were successful young and continued writing good work into middle age, or older. I suspect this is particularly true in F&SF because great success in the genre not only requires technical skill in writing, but the ability to create and evoke whole worlds and cultures, and usually with a mythos/rationale behind such cultures. These abilities usually require practice and a range of knowledge that spans a number of disciplines. Add to that the fact that English is a highly irregular and complex language, with the largest vocabulary of any language yet developed, and you have a profession where early mastery of skills is going to be comparatively rare.

In terms of awards in F&SF, there are essentially two kinds — those awarded through popularity, such as the Hugo and Locus awards, and those which are judged in some fashion or another, such as the World Fantasy Awards. Because popularity-based awards require that those voting know the author in some fashion, it’s rather unlikely that newer and presumably younger authors will even be nominated for such awards immediately because readers have to be aware of an author before they can vote for them, and building awareness can take years.

Juried awards, of course, are designed to reflect the judgment and experience of those selecting the awards, and they usually do. [Disclosure — I was once a judge for the World Fantasy Awards.] The judges do tend to be widely read, and they don’t tend to reward popularity, but skill in writing, which as noted above, normally does take some time to develop.

Thus, it’s neither discriminatory nor surprising that newer/younger writers are “under-represented” in terms of awards.

On a side note, I was unaware, until I read The Economist last week, that Barrack Obama had written two autobiographies. When I mentioned that to a group of people, one immediately replied, “What has any politician, especially one in his forties, done that merits even one autobiography?”

While the comment was somewhat flippant, it also bears a certain truth, and that truth is, alas, at variance with both perception and human desire. In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, one of the protagonists is a woman vice-president of a railroad. Years ago, my father noted, acerbically, “No railroad has ever had a 32 year old vice president, let alone a woman.” So far as I’ve been able to ascertain, he was right, both for practical and cultural reasons.

Because of the underlying requirements for accomplishment in the creative, economic, and political worlds, while there will always be a handful of youthful standouts, the majority of solid and lasting achievements will, in fact, be based on experience and expertise developed over time, a fact that those who are young have always chafed against, and, I suspect, always will.