Under 25? Good bones? Literate? Contact your nearest publisher. A fat cheque (followed by critical obloquy) can be yours, says Lilian Pizzichini
OVER THE past year or so, literary editors of newspapers throughout the country have been receiving press releases from publishers that introduce their authors like this: "Chris Wooding was born in 1977, making him 20 or 21 depending on when you read this..." That was from Scholastic. Then there's Louise Bagshawe from Orion who, we are told, is "witty, sassy, opinionated" and "only 26, but has already written four novels". It seems that Louise wrote a poem for the Tablet at the age of 14, and has never looked back. Now that she's graduated from Oxford (where, her publicist helpfully informs us, she was "President of the rock society"), she is writing sassy, witty, etc novels about SWFs (single white females) and their "TDO [top designer outfitted] flatmates". "Herald the Bridget Jones era!" her PR outfit triumphantly exclaims.

She's not alone. Last year, it was 17-year-old Jenn Crowell's turn to be feted as a prodigy with a novel whose main protagonist was twice her age and recently bereaved. Necessary Madness grossed just under pounds 1m. Her editor, Carolyn May at Hodder Headline, rushed 25,000 hardbacks into print (the standard print run is 2-3,000) and the paperback is published next week. May states that the review coverage was uniformly excellent but that "it wouldn't have got the attention it did if we hadn't mentioned her age". Quite. One critic remarked that reading it reminded her of Dr Johnson's proverbial dogs walking on their hind legs.

This year, publishers are proudly proclaiming the prodigious talents of first-time novelists 20-year-old Richard Mason (still at Oxford), and young Master Wooding, who is a teen chronicler ("unfortunately, he's turning 21 soon," joked his publicist) eager to share his experience of a party that goes nightmarishly wrong. Scholastic is keen to emphasise his youth because "he knows what it's like to be a teenager. I'm 27, and it was completely different in my day." Amazingly, there are no drugs consumed in his novel, Crashing, and sex is only hinted at. Even in my day, and I'm 32, there were plenty of both knocking about. Whether his talent will stand the test of time remains to be seen, but from the way this young author is marketed it is tempting to think that he is being published simply because he is young.

As for Richard Mason, his novel is a year away from publication, but even now it's the talk of the booksellers' town. Penguin coughed up pounds 110,000 for The Drowning People and doesn't mind telling us so. Publicity manager James Holland cheerfully admits: "Yes, it does help that he's young and looks like a cross between Hugh Grant and Rupert Everett. He's a good news story."

But Suzy Feay, literary editor of this newspaper, is tired of novels whose covers shout "He's only 22!", and is sceptical of these marketing tactics. "Some of these writers are serious, and their publishers aren't doing them any favours rushing them out and hyping them up because it gives the reader expectations the book can't always meet. It can only be disappointing after all the coverage it's received. Hype is killing young talent."

Auberon Waugh, editor of the Literary Review, is even more resistant: "I don't believe the figures that are being touted. Authors have always lied about their advances - now their publishers are joining in. Anyway, the advances cover second or third novels that all too often fail to measure up." In his opinion "publishers are the laziest people in the country. They could make a perfectly reasonable living from good novels that sell 3,000 copies. Instead they want to publish one rubbishy novel by a teenager and hype it up."

So, inevitably, it's economics that is governing this emergence of precocious talent. David Milner at Secker and Warburg explains: "New high-quality fiction is a rare commodity, so when something vaguely competent but marketable comes along, there's a feeding frenzy. Of course large advances demand a huge marketing budget to recoup the money, but they are good publicity for the authors in themselves. Sadly, many publishers seem to feel it's good publicity for their careers as well."

There are exceptions. Neil Taylor at Sceptre has just published Tourist by 23-year-old Matt Thorne, but paid only "somewhere in the region of pounds 6,000", even though Thorne is good-looking and extremely talented. But he didn't want to put pressure on his new author because "if the first novel doesn't work, you're f****d. And where do you go from there?" His take on the hyping of youth is that "it's a fruitless pursuit of the next big thing. It seems to me that, at the acquisition stage, rock 'n' roll practices have been adopted. Most editors are middle-aged men who think,'This book's such dynamite I want it at any cost', in the mistaken belief that the public want it at any cost too. So here they are, 40-year-olds dictating what 20-year-olds want to read."

Taylor contends that there are larger cultural forces at work. The impact of more easily accessible media has affected the kinds of book that are written. "A good example of a first novel published six years ago is [32- year-old] Adam Thorpe's Ulverton. It was well constructed, erudite and fluently written. It reflected a literary culture that looked in on itself. Now we have [27-year-old] Alex Garland who writes like a caveman, but it works."

So young writers no longer need spend years in seedy bedsits honing their craft. Thorpe's agent, Bill Hamilton, agrees: "It's desperately regrettable but books are being sold as showbiz, which has nothing to do with literature, so someone's being cheated. So many of these young authors haven't learnt enough about life. Most first novels are the result of reams of discarded manuscripts. You have to learn the hard way. But there's a new commercial market for books by young men in particular and it's a fashion statement to be seen reading them." And for publishers to be seen buying them.

One young man who has just been published is 23-year-old Bo Fowler, whose surreal, Vonnegut-like satire on religious belief, Scepticism Inc, received favourable reviews on the whole but hasn't achieved good sales. Considering Cape paid pounds 140,000 for this and Fowler's next novel, favourable reviews aren't quite enough. There is no doubt that Fowler - a graduate of Malcolm Bradbury's creative writing course - is gifted, and Cape is too sophisticated to trade on his youth, but that must have been a factor in the book's acquisition. His editor, Dan Franklin, is famous for signing up young novelists and he told me why: "You're only innocent with your first novel. Now that bookshops have computerised tills, booksellers can look up an author and see that their last novel only sold 800 copies. An author can't be reinvented. That's why editors hunger for new blood."

So what will happen when Cape's sales reps go round trying to flog Fowler's second novel? "I don't know. I've just received the manuscript and it's even weirder. Anyway, over-65s are my latest thing." And I'm not entirely sure he was joking.