Electric Literature’s ‘5 Over 35’ Prove You Don’t Have to Be a Prodigy to Publish
If you’re discouraged by the celebration of young writers, meet five authors over 35 whose debut books are making a splash
Yesterday the National Book Foundation announced its “5 Under 35” picks: five young debut authors worth watching. But without diminishing the accomplishments of these incredible new writers, we have to note that the tendency of media and publishing to celebrate youth can be discouraging for aspiring and emerging writers approaching (or well into, or beyond) middle age. It’s important to remember that debuts can come later in life, too; you haven’t missed your chance to write a great book just because you’re old enough to run for president. Willa Cather was 39 when her first novel debuted in serial form in McClure’s. Toni Morrison published her first novel when she was 40, and George Eliot published Middlemarch at 52. (Is it a coincidence that many women writers debut work later in life?) Ultimately, why do we put so much stock in a debut author’s age? Authors of any age who write insightful, beautiful books should be celebrated.
So in addition to the NBF’s illustrious honorees, we’re highlighting five stellar debut works published in 2018 so far, written by authors who are over 35—because there’s no right age to start writing, and being a young debut author isn’t inherently more worthy of celebration than not being young. The authors we’ve chosen here deserve a whole lot of praise for writing through a life that offers more reasons to stop writing the longer you live it. We offer this list as an honorary award for those who keep going.
All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung (37)
Chung’s memoir traces the storyline she grew up in. Born premature, Chung was put up for adoption by her Korean parents and raised by her white adoptive family in suburban Oregon. She dealt with prejudice her family couldn’t understand as she grew into her own identity as an Asian American writer. When her daughter was born, Chung tried to retrace her roots and untangle some of the past to braid it anew. Was the story she grew up with the whole truth? What does it mean to be family?
There There by Tommy Orange, (36)
How do you reconcile your self against an identity? For each of the characters in Orange’s novel, to be an “Indian” — an “Urban Indian” living in Oakland, California is an evolving question. Time tips toward the Oakland powwow, where Tommy, the first character we meet in the novel, is planning to commit armed robbery. What will happen when the community gathers at the Oakland powwow, and what will it mean to be “authentically Indian?” The New York Times couldn’t help but be effusive: “Yes, Tommy Orange’s New Novel Really Is That Good” they blurted out in their headline for the review. And they’re right.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (46)
Eleanor Oliphant thinks the ingredients for a “perfect weekend” include a frozen pizza, some vodka, and a call to mom. Be sure to leave out interactions with humans, please. That is, until she and the (otherwise kind of offputting) IT guy from her office, Raymond, both stop to help an elderly man named Sammy when he takes a spill on the sidewalk. The three unlikely, antisocial friends ease into something like friendship as Raymond and Eleanor stumble into love. Reese Witherspoon loved the book so much, she’s making it into a movie.
A Lucky Man: Stories by Jamel Brinkley (42)
The phrase is worn out, but really — this is a book we need right now. Brinkley’s short story collection explores toxic masculinity as it plays out in the lives of boys and young men in Brooklyn and the South Bronx, confronting the choices, mistakes, and desires that erupt between the world as it is and as they want it to be. As one reviewer put it, these stories “find their footing on the violent edge of gender performativity and end in a reach for language to describe the incomprehensible.”
Summer Cannibals by Melanie Hobson (50)
Hobson’s book is an intense family drama, following three adult sisters who confront family tensions and secrets on a trip to their childhood home. It’s a sort of northern Southern Gothic, heavy on the psychosexual baggage; it will not make you feel good about marriage or family, but it will make you feel good about the possibility of publishing a first novel even though you’re old enough to be into Patti Smith. (Please do not email, we know you can be into Patti Smith at any age.)