Browsing the Wikipedia list of great american novels turned up something perhaps unexpected; the youth(fulness) of most of the authors when they wrote their most acclaimed, well-known or respected work. For example, Moby Dick was published when Melville, the author, was 32, the Grapes of Wrath when Steinbeck was 37, the Catcher in the Rye when Salinger was 32, and To Kill a Mockingbird when Nelle Harper Lee was 34.
Indeed, looking at the writing output of most of the authors, their great novel or book is nearly always one of their first works, followed by several decades of “not quite as good” writing, in the eyes of reviewers (for whatever they count). And nearly all of the “Great American Novels” were written when the author was in their twenties or thirties.
As a budding, but 43 year old, writer who has more modest/realistic ambition, this is a bit dispiriting. Are your “best years” as a writer behind you once you enter the (contentious) period of middle age? Does classic writing come not from many years of experience and writing, but from a few years of youthful uninhibited craft? Is the research about cognitive decline starting in your forties perhaps right, and Malcolm Gladwell perhaps wrong about needing to clock up 10,000 hours to be seriously good at something?
There is however, thankfully, some contradictory evidence. Mark Twain finished my favorite book, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when he was 49. Cormac McCarthy published Blood Meridian when he was 52, William Gaddis published J R when he was 53, Wolfe finished The Bonfire of the Vanities when he was 56, Tolkien finished writing The Lord of the Rings when he was 57 (though he wrote it over 14 years) – which was the same age James Joyce finished Finnegans Wake – while Thomas Pynchon saw Mason & Dixon published when he was 60. And Wallace Stegner wrote the National Award winning Spectator Bird when he was 67, while Agatha Christie was still writing murder mysteries well into her 70s.
I’ve thrown the question on Twitter and Facebook, and more examples have come in. Updike had Gertrude and Claudius published when he was 68 (thanks, Jessica), Mary Wesley wrote the Camomile Lawn when she was 72 (thanks, Lucrezia, Sarah and DTurner), José Saramago wrote Blindness when he was 73 (thanks, Jan) and Stegner wrote Crossing to Safety when he was 78 (thanks, Laurel). Also, and here’s a good one, Helen Hooven Santmyer saw And Ladies of the Club published when she was 88, after writing it on and off for half a century (thanks, Allison and Monique).
But still; there’s a rather disconcerting drop-off of “classic” novels written by people older than their thirties. Am not sure what this means, or whether this means anything at all. Are there any great examples out there that can disprove this?
Postscript: The Huff has a gallery of some novelists who produced well-known works after the age of 40. There is hope :-)