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.