Sam Tanenhaus has an interesting essay on the relationship between age and literary genius, which was prompted by the new New Yorker fiction issue, featuring a list of 20 accomplished writers under the age of 40. Tanenhaus argues that the purpose of the list – “to offer a focused look at the talent sprouting and blooming around us” – neglected to mention one crucial fact, which is that many of these writers have probably already composed their best work:
The emphasis on futurity misses an essential truth about fiction writers: They often compose their best and most lasting work when they are young. “There’s something very misleading about the literary culture that looks at writers in their 30s and calls them ‘budding’ or ‘promising,’ when in fact they’re peaking,” Kazuo Ishiguro told an interviewer last year. Ishiguro (54 when he said this) added that since the age of 30 he had been haunted by the realization that most of the great novels had been written by authors under 40.
At the time, this anxiety struck some as comical, but history bears Ishiguro out. Even great novelists who endure in the collective memory as Prosperos, long seasoned in their “secret studies,” often performed their greatest magic when they were young. Flaubert was 29 when he began writing “Madame Bovary” (and was 34 when it was completed). Thomas Mann was 24 when he completed his first masterpiece, “Buddenbrooks.” Tolstoy, after a period of dissolution followed by military service, began writing “War and Peace” at age 34. Joyce, who wrote “Ulysses” in his 30s, already had two major works behind him. The late-blooming Proust, his youth idled in Paris salons, was only 37 when he began writing “Remembrance of Things Past.” Even Kafka, the 20th century’s most haunting exemplar of anguished paralysis, was 29 when he wrote “The Metamorphosis” and 31 when he began “The Trial.”
Unsurprisingly, in youth-obsessed America, writers have often done their best work early. Melville was 32 when “Moby-Dick” was published (after the successes of “Typee” and “Omoo”). The writers of the lost generation found their voices when they were very young: Fitzgerald (28, “The Great Gatsby”), Hemingway (27, “The Sun Also Rises”). Faulkner lagged slightly behind. He had just turned 32 when “The Sound and the Fury” was published. Then again, it was his fourth novel.
It’s an interesting argument, and there is certainly no shortage of examples and counter-examples. I could, for instance, compose a long list of late-blooming writers: Henry James peaked in his early 60s; Virginia Woolf didn’t fully master the form until her mid-40s; late Bellow is much better than early Bellow; Proust might have started writing RoTP at 37 but he didn’t “finish” it until he was 50; Joseph Conrad wasn’t a serious writer until middle-age; Nabokov wrote his finest work in his 50s and 60s; Gabriel Garcia Marquez continued to produce masterpieces well past middle age.
In other words, it’s hard to settle this argument using anecdotes. Fortunately, a psychologist at UC-Davis, Dean Simonton, has assembled the historiometric data. He finds that the vast majority of disiplines obey an inverted U curve of creativity. The shape of the curve captures the steep rise and slow fall of individual creativity, with performance peaking after a few years of work before it starts a slow, gradual decline. (This curve was first identified by Adolphe Quetelet, a 19th-century French mathematician and sociologist, who plotted the number of plays produced by French and English playwrights over the course of their life spans.) Interestingly, Simonton has found that the precise shape of the curve depends on the discipline. Here is an excerpt from Origins of Genius:
In domains like pure mathematics and lyric poetry, the curve approaches the peak rather rapidly, and the decline after the optimum level may be dramatic. In fields like geology and philosophy, the rise to the maximum output point is more gradual, and the subsequent descent less precipitous.
For instance, Simonton has found that poets and physicists tend to produce their finest work in their late 20s, while geologists, biologists and novelists tend to peak much later, often not until they reach late middle age. Simonton argues that those disciplines with an “intricate, highly articulated body of domain knowledge,” such as physics, chess and poetry, tend to encourage youthful productivity. In contrast, fields that are more loosely defined, in which the basic concepts are ambiguous and unclear – examples include history, literary criticism and biology – lead to later peak productive ages. It takes time to master the complexity; we need to make lots of mistakes before we get it right. According to Simonton, novelists fall into this second category. Unlike poets, who peak early and fade quick, fiction writers tend to ripen and mature with age. Henry James is not the exception – he is the rule.
Obviously, this work comes with plenty of caveats. For one thing, critics will disagree about the creative peak of a writer. Did Roth peak with Portnoy’s or American Pastoral? I prefer Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest to Rabbit, Run, but many others place Updike’s peak at the start of his career.
The real moral is that there is no simple correlation between age and creativity. This limited conclusion is supported by the fascinating work of David Galenson, an economist at the University of Chicago. Galenson divides creators into two distinct categories: conceptual innovators and experimental innovators. In general, conceptual innovators make sudden and radical breakthroughs by formulating new ideas, often at an early age. In contrast, experimental innovators work by trial and error, and typically require decades of tinkering before they produce a major work.
One of my favorite Galenson papers is his analysis of 20th century songwriters, in which he compares Irving Berlin and Cole Porter (experimental innovators) with Bob Dylan and John Lennon, who greatly expanded the conceptual possibilities of their field. (In his autobiography, Dylan confesses to a very grand ambition: “Picasso had fractured the art world and cracked it wide open. He was revolutionary. I wanted to be like that.”) Here’s Galenson on Dylan and the Beatles:
This shift, which transformed popular music from an experimental into a conceptual art, produced a distinct change in the creative life cycles of songwriters. Golden Era songwriters were generally at their best during their 30s and 40s, whereas since the mid-’60s popular songwriters have consistently done their best work during their 20s.
In other words, different circumstances call for different kinds of creativity. The patient craftsmanship of Berlin and Porter wouldn’t have appealed to the youth of 1963, just as the ingenious insolence of Dylan and Lennon wouldn’t have worked on Broadway in the late 1930s. Sometimes we need a revolution, and sometimes we need a marginal improvement. The most successful artists, in other words, aren’t slaves to their chronological age. Instead, they succeed by speaking to the age in which they live.