Not many writers make it in their 20s. A few might, but the fact that most of those seem to make headlines is a good indication of how few there really are. A successful published writer in their 20s is generally held up as a thing of wonder: a creature handicapped by youth, and yet capable of producing something worth of oh, say, a 35-year-old.
It wasn’t always like this. Back in the earlier parts of the 20th century, Joyce, Kafka, and Hemingway had already made serious headway into literary success (and resulting financial penury) by the time they hit 30.
Nowadays, many people believe that nobody should be writing about life until they’ve at least lived some. And indeed, many writers in their 20s encounter nothing but rejection, locked doors, and a tendency to gaze in the mirror a little too long as they wonder why the world doesn’t understand them.
Still, there’s something hugely romantic about having the literary world give you the nod while you’re still young. We could say we don’t envy a 20-something firestarter, when we hear of another glowing Guardian review or screenplay adaptation coming their way, but of course we’d be lying.
The main reason for this is not just because most of us end up looking for literary acceptance when we’re so much older. It’s because we also know that had we been writing books in our 20s, they would have been a steaming pile of self-indulgent effluent.
I am one of those long-time scribblers who didn’t make it in my 20s. Mind you, I wasn’t submitting anything for either publication or judgement in my 20s either. And I thank the powers that be for that. For many of us, our 20s are exhausting years of introspection and self-obsession – and our fiction would be no different.
With that in mind, here are 5 terrifyingly awful books I would have written in my 20s:
- The Thinly Disguised Travelogue
Many writers in their 20s are guilty of this, but it’s not their fault. It’s hard to separate yourself from your experiences, when every experience you’ve ever had is the most incredibly amazing experience ever.
Mary-Joe O’Scoodlydoosh trembled as she set her heavy suitcase down upon the utilitarian concrete outside Cologne’s magnificent cathedral, the Kölner Dom, which was built a really long time ago but not finished until some year in the 1800s. She was tired from her going-away party, singing all the old songs well into the small hours of her German wake. She noticed a bus arriving at its stop, bang on time. This would never have happened at home in Ireland. She really was in a new world now.
- The Spectacularly Unaware Exploration of Self-Awareness
You know what it’s like in your 20s, right? When you’re like, learning so much, you know? About yourself? For years? Until you realise that you might have been a hell of a lot better learning about, you know… other people?
Mary felt like she was slipping into a murky layer of herself; the deeper she went, the more distant she felt from her friend Patricia’s silly worries about her job, and men. Mary couldn’t understand why nobody understood how alone she felt; how much she thought about thinking. She felt like weeping, but instead reapplied her eyeliner and stormed the bar, downing 16 shots in the first hour and scoring with three stupid ex-boyfriends who just realised that they should never have dumped her.
- The Sorry, That’s Actually Fan Fiction
The adage “write what you know” is often sadly too close for comfort – in the pain being close to pleasure stakes – to: “write a badly imitated collage of what you’ve been reading”. For my part, I went through a massive binge of post-colonial fiction in my 20s. I shudder to think of what might have happened, should I have attempted to apply my own entire lack of experience to it.
Chang-Xiu Abubu was not a large man. But he was like Doctor Who’s Tardis; bigger on the inside, crammed as he was with the suffering of his people. He wept, but walked on in the hot sunshine and entire lack of rain.
- The ‘Life You’d Rather Have’ Novel
Patricia was confused; the letter offering her the position of CEO of Instagram was like hot coal in her hands. How on earth was she going to choose? She had to tell Harry and Megan if she’d take up the offer to be their PA by Thursday, and there were two voicemails on her phone urging her to get back to the IRFU about that Masseuse to the Irish Men’s Rugby Team job.
Sam grasped her hand. ‘I know you’re under pressure right now, Patty-cake,’ he said gently. ‘But you have to tell me. Did Phil, that obscenely rich bastard, ask you to marry him? Because you know he can’t give you what I could.’
Patty gasped. Life was so hard.
- The Unknowledgeable Novel
Yeah, we’ve all been there. You have a great idea for a novel. You know it. Everyone else is going to know it. Sure, you have some research to do, but it can’t be that hard, right? I mean, where does science fiction come from? And fiction is supposed to be made up, right?
Stanley’s phone rang, and he answered it impatiently. “Sell! Sell!” he roared into it, before hanging up abruptly, regretting all the times he’d said “Buy!” that morning, just before the stock market crashed. He normally loved his job as a banker, but his friend Dave had a much better job, being a lawyer, wearing his wig to court just to make ground-breaking speeches.
Suddenly, he thought of his girlfriend Kelly, a real East-Ender from London, who always said ‘wotcha’ and ‘a’wight?’ He didn’t know how to tell her he was going to the Middle East, to meditate for six months. Stanley couldn’t wait to see the Steppes and the Fjords of Mongolia again.
Can we all just take a moment to be thankful that I didn’t start writing in earnest until my 30s?
And while we’re at it, let us not be envious of those writers in their 20s who make the headlines for not being awful. They’re an endangered species, and need both our protection and our support.