09 February 2012

Finely Aged Novelists

With every passing year, I get more interested in creative people who have done their most significant work late in life. I like late bloomers. They give me hope for humanity in some ways, because their stories are stories where the climax doesn't come in the first chapter.

Thus, I was interested in Rick Gekoski's post at The Guardian titled, "When novelists reach the end of their stories", which I hoped would explode the myth that novels are best left to the young.

Alas, it is youth-worshipping claptrap, built on a vastly incomplete set of examples used to prove an imaginary rule.

Luckily, though, the Guardian readers are not buying into the premise, and the comments section is full of great examples that disprove Gekoski's supposed rule, that question his basic premise, and that highlight the narrowness of his example set. Commenters have listed writers who have done great work throughout their careers, writers who have had long apprentice periods before doing great work, and writers who haven't even started work until the age of retirement.

One of the many problems with Gekoski's assumptions is that he blames everything on age and nothing on the myriad other elements of life. For instance, you can't write about creativity and age without noting the effect of a youth-worshipping culture and the hype machines that feed it. So much of the public perception of writers is not based on their actual texts, but the social texts constructed around them. Gekoski seems particularly hype-addled — look at the list he uses as the core of his argument: "Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Graham Swift – that excellent generation of novelists whose best work is now, pretty clearly, behind them."

Dude, you need to read around more. Women have written stuff, too, you know. Some of them have written quite wonderful work, in fact, late in life — from Penelope Fitzgerald to Ursula Le Guin to Carol Emshwiller, just to name three who immediately come to mind. (Also, I'd argue Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is easily among his top work, and a perfection of some of the techiques he was working toward in some of his earliest books. You just have to read it right.)

There are other factors that affect novelists in age — consider Faulkner, whose best work was obviously done when he was in his 30s. He wasn't particularly well known, and he was a chronic alcoholic. By the time he was broadly famous, his best work was well behind him and his body was destroyed by booze. (Tom Dardis's The Thirsty Muse does a good job of showing how well alcohol eventually destroys creativity.)

For some writers, age brings change to their style and interests, and perception of their early work as "great" and their later work as something less than great may have as much to do with our early perception of the writer as it does the actual texts. J.M. Coetzee is a great example. His novels Waiting for the Barbarians and Life & Times of Michael K are masterworks, absolutely (published when he was in his early 40s), but so is Disgrace, published in his late 50s, and the work he's published since becoming a bestseller and a Nobel laureate is a fascinating exploration of self-perception, fame, language, age, memory etc. — work he probably couldn't have even conceived before gaining the experience of age and of his own particular circumstances in life. The work since Disgrace is not likely ever to be as popular or revered as the earlier novels because it isn't as generally accessible, but in that sense Coetzee is following in the footsteps of one of the his greatest influences, Samuel Beckett, whose late work explored the limits of language, compressing it to diaphanous beauty — a project quite different from the early work, and especially the work that made him famous, but nonetheless full of genius and power, indispensible. (True, Beckett's later concerns made novel-writing an impossible paradox; the last work he wrote that could be called a novel is How It Is from 1961, so he fits into Gekoski's "rule", but in a similar way to Thomas Hardy, who stopped writing novels and turned to poetry.) Or consider David Markson, who did all sorts of writing throughout his life, but who really discovered his own form and subject matter after his 50th birthday.

Novelists have published brilliant work at all different ages, including well into the supposedly twilight years. If we were to somehow create a universal survey of when people published novels, it would probably graph as a bell curve with the 30s and 40s as the most productive decades of life — there are all sorts of reasons for those being most people's most productive years in many fields. But to extrapolate a rule from it, and to think such extrapolation produces valuable and insightful data, seems to me folly. Genius, especially, pops up unpredictably. Literary culture would be much poorer without writers of all different ages.

3 comments:

  1. Yes. Late bloomers know things.

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  2. I might suggest that Gekoski simply doesn't care for the sort of thoughtful, questioning novels writers might write as they age and gain in self-awareness. The older I get (50 this year! Who'd a thunk it?), the less patience I have with novels that are full of youthful self-assurance, making bold claims about life. I now find myself attached to novels that are full of questions and contradiction. Finally, aged novelists.

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  3. At the risk of sounding like I'm self-promoting, but I'm publishing ebooks by an author who is 86 years old (Jack Matthews) who is just as productive as he was earlier in life and writing stuff even more brilliant than ever. Last year he published a Civil War historical work (Gambler's Nephew-- from another publisher) which is a masterpiece and the best thing I'd read in years; he's recently finished a lot of other stuff recently and is still tackling new projects. I don't think his writer's gift has waned at all -- though perhaps he may be writing slower or more carefully.

    Another example suffices. I am currently writing a book review of Jade: Outlaw by my college writing teacher Robert Flynn. He is now 79 years old. I've read about half of his novels, and I have to say that Jade: The Outlaw is by far my favorite of his novels, and just recently he wrote a sequel.

    both these people have sharp minds, exceedingly high standards and great literary gifts. Alas, neither gained the recognition they probably deserved. Frankly, they have reached the stage in their literary career where they are easily overlooked and where they don't have time or energy or even the desire to promote themselves. Contrast that with authors who have been become household names (such as Oates, Roth, Updike, etc) who probably have higher expectations thrust onto them and encounter more public disappointment when something they write is only semi-brilliant.

    With Matthews' latest works, they are different from his earlier stuff in subject and style -- that is why they are fascinating. With Flynn's later works, they seem to be a return to familiar themes, but with more gravity and more attention to historical detail.

    To conclude: these two examples are great examples of writers who are writing great things late in life. by the way, both were university writing teachers --. Most of the characters in these books are young -- though both novels have historical themes; one takes place before the Civil War; another takes place in 19th century Texas. Stylistically, not a lot of experimentation, although both authors write very carefully and with panache. Both are happily married and have fewer distractions than they might have had during the primary part of their writing career.

    Funny you mentioned Penelope Fitzgerald. I loved Blue Flower (published when she was 79) but am currently reading her Booker-winning Offshore written in her fifties and am finding it a bore).

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