Between the hormones in milk and the steroids in beef, the average sixth-grader today looks like the average college freshmen from 1950. There are some key differences, however. The sixth-graders of today masturbate, menstruate, and text-message with greater frequency. On the surface this appears to suggest a legacy of progress. And you might think, that with puberty arriving earlier, the whole timeline would move up. Keep in mind that the average college freshman from 1950 would, within ten years, graduate college, find a career, marry a spouse, have 2.5 children, pay a mortgage and undergo either a vasectomy or a tubal ligation. But while today's youth reach physical maturity at a younger age, their social maturity seems to be taking much longer. A casual stroller through any urban environment will come across thirty-year-olds in sneakers who have not learned to shave. You think to yourself, This may be true, yet why is this in a blog, at least ostensibly, about books? Rimbaud stopped writing at 21. Keats died at 26. Currently the Yale Younger Poets prize is open to any poets under the age of forty! If trends continue, in another ten or fifteen years, the Yale people will be forced to extend that deadline. It's simple demographics, folks.
The writer Scott Spencer once advised his students to "write the stories of your youth while you're still young, because you can't write them later." It seemed, on the surface, like the most obvious advice, but for many of us that ship has sailed.
So who is to blame? The Boomers, of course. Look at the Rolling Stones, Ricky Henderson, James Patterson. They "Do not go gentle into that good night" — sure, Dylan Thomas didn't write the poem until he was 37, but he already had seven books out.
Last week one of my classes was looking at F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise. There's this great bit where one of the characters, an aspiring writer himself, composes a poem that is nothing but a list of the writers he holds in contempt. He wraps the poem up in an extraordinary gesture of chutzpah:
I place your names here
So that you
If only as names,
Sinuous, mauve-colored names,
In the Juvenilia
Of my collected editions.
Fitzgerald wrote that when he was twenty-three.
Books mentioned in this post
Justin Tussing is the author of The Best People in the World: A Novel