Jessica Holland on the current generation of young writers, including Téa Obreht, who at 25 is already being feted as a literary star
It's fair to assume that a lot of aspiring writers are jealous of Téa Obreht. The 25-year-old writer had her debut novel, The Tiger's Wife, published just a month ago, but she's already being feted worldwide as a prodigy. The youngest by far on TheNew Yorker's prestigious "20 under 40" list released last year, her book has also been shortlisted for the Orange Prize, an accolade previously won by Zadie Smith, among others.
Set in a fictitious Balkan country, The Tiger's Wife is about a young doctor piecing together the story of her grandfather, the tiger that terrorised his village, and the deaf-mute girl who befriended the animal. It has the folkloric feel of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (one of Obreht's heroes): there are devils and spirits, and a man who can't die. It's also realistic in parts, with convincing portraits of characters and of a country coming to terms with war and the redrawing of its boundaries.
Despite her youth, Obreht's had a while to mull over these ideas. In an interview with The New Yorker, she said she started writing stories at the age of eight, and "decided then and there that I wanted to be a writer". There are elements of the story gleaned from her own life: she was close to her grandfather, a man who liked to tell stories, and she spent the first seven years of her life in former Yugoslavia, a country that was in the process of being pulled apart.
Her family moved to Cyprus first, and then to Egypt, before settling in the US, where Obreht eventually earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California and then a masters in creative writing from Cornell. She started writing a story about a tiger in 2007, after the unexpected death of her grandfather, and signed with an agent on the basis of 80 pages. Two years later, she was sent on a trip to the Balkans to write about local vampire legends for Harper's magazine, and ended up rewriting much of it.
Now the book's finally out, and critics, for the most part, are swooning. The New York Times called it "hugely ambitious, audaciously written", TheWashington Post called it "enchanting" and the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph looks forward to Obreht's future output, excitedly saying she "has plenty of time, talent and brio".
It's true that the book is impressive: Obreht clearly has a fertile imagination and images, such as a man sitting up in a coffin with two bullets lodged in his skull, and replica body parts being smuggled over a border, are enticingly strange.
It doesn't feel like a mature work, though: there are too many sections that don't seem to go anywhere and not much emotional depth. Editors at The New Yorker said that the 20 writers in their twenties and thirties they chose to spotlight were ones "who we believe are, or will be, key to their generation... the ones our grandchildren and their grandchildren will read".
Perhaps Obreht is one of those who hasn't written her masterpiece yet. Plenty of bright, young things blossom as they age.
"There's something very misleading about the literary culture that looks at writers in their thirties and calls them 'budding' or 'promising' when in fact they're peaking," the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro told an interviewer last year, and he also added that he'd been haunted by the idea that most great novels are written under the age of 40 since he turned 30. That still gives Obreht plenty of time, but does precocious talent always translate into mature genius? Or do some writers flare brightly and burn up their promise fast?
It's not hard to find examples on both sides of the fence. Zadie Smith was another celebrated young author - she wrote White Teeth at 21 - who is getting better with age. It wasn't White Teeth but the later On Beauty that (deservedly) won the Orange Prize.
Of those included on The New Yorker's last "20 Under 40" list (published in 1999) Michael Chabon, Jeffrey Eugenides, Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri went on to win Pulitzer Prizes, so the magazine's claim to spot up-and-comers has some justification. Digging back a little further into history, we could remind ourselves that Dickens was 24 when he published his first novel; but his greatest didn't come until later (he was 49 on publication of Great Expectations). Herman Melville started writing in his twenties, and Moby Dick was his sixth book.
On the other hand, plenty of authors have produced their best work before hitting 30: think of Ernest Hemingway (27 when he wrote The Sun Also Rises) and F Scott Fitzgerald (28 when he wrote The Great Gatsby). The French writer Françoise Sagan never quite produced anything to eclipse Bonjour Tristesse, the novel she wrote aged 17.
A book by David Galenson called Old Masters and Young Geniuses suggests that writers (and musicians and artists) who improve with age have a fundamentally different type of talent to those who start out bright and fade. "Old masters" start out with a hazy idea of where they're heading and get there gradually through research and exploration. They'll write hundreds of drafts. "Young geniuses" are more conceptual, starting with an idea and executing it quickly.
Mark Twain, who took 10 years to write The Adventures ofHuckleberry Finn, fits into the first camp, while Jonathan Safran Foer, who wrote most of Everything is Illuminated in 10 weeks at the age of 19, would go in the second. If the theory's true, where does Obreht fit in? The Tiger's Wife is inspired by experience, but it's also an ideas book more than a book about reality. Apparently Obreht is now deep in research for the second book, which is a good sign. Let's hope she's a Twain, and the best is still to come.