Why you should care
Because great writers aren’t like fine wine — they’re great at every age.
Chasing the fountain of youth leads to nothing except wrinkles, but that hasn’t stopped us from exalting the genius of young writers whose early work catapults them to literary stardom — from Jonathan Safran Foer to Donna Tartt, and from Zadie Smith to David Foster Wallace. But before you devour the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list of fiction writers worth watching — and before another international prize (whether the stodgy Man Booker or the hip African Etisalat Prize) gets doled out to a child prodigy, take a moment to consider whether younger really is better — and what’s prompting us to push older writers to the back of the bookshelf.
Many great writers believe that literature, as W.B. Yeats put it, is no country for old men.
In the summer of 1816, a mansion on the banks of Lake Geneva was the site of one of history’s great literary confluences. Lord Byron arrived in Switzerland — fleeing scandal, as usual — and met Percy Shelley and his soon-to-be wife, Mary. The two men hit it off, and what ensued that summer is the subject of much scholarship and even more mythology, but this much is certain: Three masterpieces emerged from a summer of wine, opium and free love. Byron produced The Prisoner of Chillon; Shelley wrote his Hymn to Intellectual Beauty; and Mary Shelley, most famously of all, gave birth to Frankenstein. (Around that time, Percy Shelley also wrote the poem ”Ozymandias,” this very site’s namesake.)
But what seems to fascinate about these writers is not simply their extraordinary talent but also their astonishing youth. In 1816, Byron was 28, Shelley was 23, and Mary was just 18.
Fast-forward 198 years, and the literary world is still agog over its young cubs, proclaiming the prodigious talent of Eleanor Catton, who, by winning last year’s Man Booker Prize at 28, became the youngest-ever recipient of the award.
Is this merely the natural outcome of a youth-obsessed culture or, as many great writers believe, the natural order — and that literature, in the words of W.B. Yeats, “is no country for old men”?
John Updike, for example, in his satirical portrayal of Bech, a writer physically and emotionally disintegrating in the face of old age, observed that “writers are not scholars but athletes, who grow beer bellies after 30.” And it’s not difficult to corroborate the theory: Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Kerouac produced much of their best work in their 20s; Joyce, Tolstoy and Melville produced masterpieces in their 30s — while few of these writers managed to repeat their early successes in old age. Why? Could youth and brilliance be so closely intertwined?
You could argue that works like Ulysses and Infinite Jest require such intensity and intellectual labor to produce that the task is best suited to young writers at the peak of their physical and mental abilities.
And writers throughout the ages have expressed the fear that old age will dull their creative senses.
Martin Amis, a British novelist of 63, famously lamented that thanks to modern medicine, writers must “die twice” — first, when their pens stop, and later, when their hearts do.
This narrative is surely compelling, but we should be wary of becoming too swept up in the cult of youth. The lives of Lord Byron, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac and David Foster Wallace were thrilling but also tragic. None lived to see 50, whether due to drink, disease or mental illness, and while their work as young writers was extraordinary, we’ll never know whether it might have evolved into something even more so. Hemingway, remember, produced powerful work in his 20s, but when he won the Nobel in 1954, the committee singled out The Old Man and the Sea, a timeless evocation of grinding old age he wrote in his 50s.
So, yes, celebrate Eleanor Catton, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2013, who beat out 33-year-old Noviolet Bulawayo, among others; she delivered a truly nuanced portrait of a young prospector seeking his fortune. But we should also applaud the mastery of Julian Barnes, 68, who won the Booker in 2011 for his subtle and heart-rending account of a middle-aged man revisiting his past in The Sense of an Ending.
It’s certainly true that older writers may not have the scorching energy or mental stamina that characterize a young genius, but their age brings wisdom, a storehouse of experience and a refinement of their craft — literary commodities we’d be foolish to discount.
Virginia Woolf didn’t publish her first novel until she reached her 30s, and her writing continued to mature until her death at 59. The same is true of Maya Angelou, who’s still going strong at 85. Philip Roth has written prolifically for five decades and recently won the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement. And Alice Munro picked up last year’s Nobel Prize in Literature — at 82.
Could it be that we deliberately shut ourselves off from the wisdom that comes with age? Our attraction to youth is invariably twinned with a fear of getting old, so it might be that younger writers aren’t necessarily better, but rather that we’re more comfortable with — even prefer — the world through their youthful eyes.
It is our choice, therefore, and we can choose to shield ourselves from the inescapable realities of age and frailty, of death and disappointment. The literary market will surely respond to our wishes, but the loss will be ours alone.