I was 21 years old, a new college graduate eager to create a life, when I sat in front of my college counselor and said, “I need to make a decision now. If I wait until I’m 30, it’ll be too hard to learn anything new.”
To his credit, my counselor didn’t do a spit-take when I made this outrageously youthful assertion, but now that I’m old enough to think of 30 as barely out of adolescence, I admire him for his restraint. Yet, even though the idea of 30 as “too old to learn new things” seems ludicrous, the notion that your ability to learn and create disappear with age is alive and well.
Many of the writers I work with express the fear that they are starting too old. They fret that they no longer have the creativity they need, or the mental acuity, or some other quality they imagine younger people have. At 40, 50, 60, or older, they fear they’ve missed the boat.
The same idea has been voiced by a number of successful writers. In 2010, author Sam Tannenhaus lamented in the New York Times that “[Fiction writers] often compose their best and most lasting work when they are young.” He points out that Flaubert was only 34 when he finished Madame Bovary, Thomas Mann was just 24 at the completion of Buddenbrooks, Tolstoy began War and Peace at 34, and James Joyce wrote Ulysses in his 30s. He quotes Kazuo Ishiguro, author of The Remains of the Day, who says that, as a novelist over 50, he’s haunted by the fact that most great novels were written by people under 40.
It’s enough to make us late-blooming authors throw out our manuscripts and resign ourselves to a lifetime of bingo. Or, it might be, if it were true.
Recently, I decided to investigate the claims of Tannenhaus, Ishiguro, and others that youth is a requirement for becoming a great fiction writer. I took a close look at the great writers of our time and the past couple centuries. What I found was that Tannenhaus’s and Ishiguro’s statements are, at best, misleading.
For one thing, Tannenhaus picks and chooses whom to mention when he refers to great novels written by young people. The works he fails to mention include The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published when Mark Twain was 50, The Scarlet Letter, penned by a 48-year-old Nathaniel Hawthorne, Billy Budd, which Herman Melville began at the age of 69, and Beloved, written by Toni Morrison when she was in her mid 50s. Need more examples? Here are just a few of many novels by authors over 40, 50, 60, 70, and, 80.
White Noise (Don DeLillo aged 49)
The Human Stain (Philip Roth, 67)
And the Ladies of the Club (Helen Hoover Santmyer, age 82)
Every Third Thought, John Barth (age 79)
All That Is, James Salter (age 87)
Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe, 56)
The Shipping News (Annie Proulx, 58)
The Colossus of Maroussi (Henry Miller, 50)
The House of Mirth (Edith Wharton, 43)
We Need to Talk about Kevin (Lionel Schriver, 46)
Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe, 41)
A full list would be much longer.
Another thing to keep in mind is that some of the writers who wrote their best works in their youth didn’t live into middle age. Emily Bronte wrote her masterpiece, Wuthering Heights, at 29, but we’ll never know whether she could have written in middle age because she died at 30. It’s not surprising that Jane Austen and D. H. Lawrence wrote their greatest works in their 30s—they died at 42 and 45 respectively. The list of authors who died young is a long one: Jack London at 40, Stephen Crane at 29, John Kennedy Toole at 31, Nathaniel West at 37, famed Japanese author Yukio Mishimo at 45, and many others.
Or take the case of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He wrote his most famous work in his 20s, but when he died at 44, he was in the middle of The Last Tycoon, a novel that promised to be the greatest work of his life, had he lived to finish it.
Even the examples Tannenhaus gives don’t actually support the conclusion he comes to. It’s true that Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary at a young age, but he continued to write and publish significant works up until his death at 59. Joyce might have been in his thirties when he wrote Ulysses, but he was in his forties when he wrote Finnegan’s Wake. Mann also wrote throughout his entire life, completing some of his greatest works in middle and old age. He was in the middle of a novel, Confessions of Felix Krull when he died at 79. Tannenhaus mentions Tolstoy’s youthful War and Peace, but ignores his second masterpiece, Anna Karenina, which he wrote in his mid-fifties.
To get an even clearer look at the ages of writers when they wrote great works, I took a look at the “15 Best North American Novels of All Time” list created by The Telegraph. What I found should be enough to silence those who claim fiction is a young person’s game. Eleven of the fifteen—close to 75% were written by authors over 40. Five—exactly one-third—were written by authors over 50.
Here’s the short version: If you are wondering if you’ve come to writing too late, please abandon that thought now. The only way age will keep you from writing is if you convince yourself you’re too old to start.
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