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Young enough or too 'late in life'?

13 January 2003

The subject of book prizes and lists of authors and how they relate to age has been highlighted in the last few weeks. First, in the US, we had Julia Glass unexpectedly streaking past all the better-known (and younger) contenders and winning the National Book Award for Fiction. As she said in her acceptance speech: 'Two years ago at age 44 and vastly pregnant with a second child I asked myself, "Who am I that I can think I can have a first book published when I am this old?" This is for everybody who blooms late in life, because you never, never know.'

But is 44 really 'late in life'? In the UK the subject of age and first fiction has been highlighted again this week, by 54-year-old Norman Lebrecht winning the First Novel category of the Whitbread Prize. He said: 'I think it's a fantastic vindication of the novel and the integrity of publishing... for a novelist to start after 50 and for people to believe in him is fantastic.'

The week has also seen the death at 90 of Mary Wesley, who published her first novel at 70, after years of consigning earlier attempts to the bin, and went on to have an extremely successful writing career.

Also announced a few days ago, with great fanfare, was the list of Granta Best of Young British Novelists for 2003. To be considered for this, you not only need to be a British passport-holder, but to be under the age of 40, which many would consider ageist. But in a way that is the point and is what makes the judging so tricky - it's all about promise. Previous lists from 1983 and 1993 have been starry and, in most cases, the promise which led to each novelist's inclusion has been borne out by their subsequent careers. It's tempting to feel that the 2003 list is not as strong as its predecessors, but perhaps that is in itself the point: only with hindsight can we judge whether the panel of judges have chosen well.

But one interesting point made by the judges ties in neatly with this week's Comment: a lack of rigorous editing. Alex Clark commented on: 'novels that could happily have seen a few more drafts. I don't think we came away with a very positive view of editing.' And Hilary Mantel said: 'Too many people seem to go into print without editorial support and are left to sink or swim'.

So, on the one hand the headlines scream about money and early success being thrown at young novelists, and on the other hand it looks as if the one thing they probably need most, good editing, is in short supply.