Old Writers

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.

What a fascinating topic! Ever since I started reading many of the books mentioned during my formative years, it always seemed to amaze me how young some of those authors were when they wrote their best work. As I myself get older, it's nice to see there are a number of examples of literary greatness across a wide spectrum of ages.

I think that a number of great authors see their best work early on because the freshness of the emotions they describe through their characters is still with them. Many of the classics that I discovered in college (like Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Hemingway, etc) seemed to parallel the same types of emotions I was dealing with at the time.

Always think about Vladimir Nabokov in this kind of discussion. He wrote what for most novelists would be personal bests in Russian in his 20s and 30s, but then switched over to English in his 40s, writing his masterpiece Lolita at age 55. Then, he produced something even more amazing at 61, Pale Fire. And then Ada, his longest and most complex novel, at 69.

Starting at age 55, I think this is one of the most amazing runs in all of literature. Not bad for an old guy, and not good for the 'burned out at 30' school of thought.

Don't forget that life expectancy changes also contribute to the argument. Historically the average ceiling was much lower which restricted the variance. So in the case of Melville the average life expectancy was much lower - via a quick google I get numbers in the range of 35-40 years old. So was he young or old when he published Moby Dick at 32?

In the final analysis, there seems to be no consensus on the matter.

When I initially read this post, I found myself in almost total agreement.....until examples were provided to the contrary.

What one can say unequivocally, it would seem, as with all things human, creativity is a moving target.

Youth is often marked by excessively heavy, high-flown, grandiloquent, and self-assured effect and style.

Some manage to maintain those sonorous qualities and when those are mitigated and crafted by the experiences that come with the passing of time......

.......the result can be magnificent.

But I believe there is no definitive age limit on one's ability to produce great works of art.

One must first, however, possess the fons et origo of creativity.......

........whether or not he/she is in possession for a short time or for a lifetime is impossible to predict with certainty.

Wow, one woman writer - really? I'd say the anecdotal part of the post suffers from the lack....

Thanks for a thought-provoking post. Stephen Boisvert makes an important point in a comment above. What might Kafka have done had he lived past 41? All his novels are incomplete. I think, too, that the enormous rise in life expectancy has changed the pace at which we are educated and engaged in our professions, especially artistic ones. Finally, though, as writers we must never measure ourselves against trends and statistics, as fascinating as they are to read and to argue, for creativity and fiction, especially, require the opposite: a delving into the quirky and individual in order to connect with--as well as overturn--the general.

terrific post, Jonah; really well laid-out and thought through, citing key work. Galenson's distinctions between experimental and conceptual, which are very compelling to me, can also be seen in the research on problem finding vs. problem solving creativity, quite a robust area of research. also, a fascinating question to me, since Galenson will say that experimental innovators are far more common, is can a conceptual innovator become more experimental over time. it's not a question Galenson has written about much yet, but Picasso seems both. Bill Gates could perhaps be making the transition as well. My sense is that experimental methods can be learned and developed by all, hence LITTLE BETS ;-), whereas conceptual is more hard-wired, but would be curious to get your take some time!

40 is "old"??

to someone back in 18th century where there were no meds/technologies that helped extend life expectancy..
but NOW--in this day and age??
I call it Middle age--not OLD-age.

By bethincary (not verified) on 17 Jun 2010 #permalink

I wonder about architects, whose work is very collaborative, and few of whom are do their best at the beginning. Of the most interesting and influential buildings or projects one might list off, how many were designed by people with decades of experience? Would the age range of productive designers be different if one considered, say, furniture designers?

By Jeff Johnson (not verified) on 17 Jun 2010 #permalink

As a 64-year old writer, I find your post very gratifying! I think it might be interesting to look at the creativity of women (at least in my generation) who "bloom" after the kids are out of the house, after menopause, etc.

Very interesting post, Jonah. As a few people pointed out, David Galenson is a tremendous resource on this. He delves far more exhaustively, and empirically, into the the careers of great novelists than Simonton. There are two papers posted on the NBER site that might interest you. The first, "Late Bloomers in Arts and Sciences," was triggered by your WSJ piece, "Fleeting Youth, Fading Creativity" http://www.nber.org/papers/w15838

And here's another piece, "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young or Old Innovator" that measures the careers of modern novelists, http://www.nber.org/papers/w10213

By Josh Schonwald (not verified) on 17 Jun 2010 #permalink

Creativity requires an advanced degree of neuronal network plasticity, much of it through the rate of glial cell connection formation and growth.

Physiological parallels have been made between schizophrenia and creativity.

Thinking Outside a Less Intact Box: Thalamic Dopamine D2 Receptor Densities Are Negatively Related to Psychometric Creativity in Healthy Individuals. PLoS One, May 17, 2010

(there are previously published articles that demonstrate similarity between autism, creativity and schizophrenia, and suggest that genetic polymorphic expression of genes, including receptor abnormalities, form a continuum from relative mental function normalcy to highly abnormal behaviors)

'Burnout' in writers and artists maybe a function of creative drive that has abnormal behavioral components, including self harm (drinking, drug use, abnormal sleep patterns, etc).

It may also reflect other physical and psychosocial factors, such as group-driven creativity - an important type of social support network with conceptual feedback loops; the readiness of society and mainstream culture to accept, acknowledge and reward creative novelty; and the degree of functional impairment with age - for instance, in the repair of large and complex neural networks that require regular maintenance of multiple connections at glial surfaces. These surfaces may deteriorate over time from senescence in middle and old age, or from chemical self-harm in younger writers and artists.

It's the Tortoise and Hare dilemma, eh?

i'm hardly disinterested in this discussion. But I wonder -- actually I think -- that even to the extent that youth does favor output among fiction writers, that does not hold as much for nonfiction writers. I think it was Ed Hoagland who opined that few essayists hit their stride till their 30s; a matter of accrued knowledge and perspective? And I do think the young-is-great meme for fiction is overplayed. Much more good fiction coimes out of 30 or 40 somethings than 20-somethings; though a few 20-somethings accomplish something big through craft innovations (and a few through wisdom beyond years), most 20-somethings simply don't have much to say, because they haven't lived very long. The examples of those who did somethign great in their 20s and then tailed off only support this notion: They hit because they delivered their one good thing or had a fresh voice or did something highly new stylistically or formally, and then didn't have all that much else to offer.

And then there's this: If younger fiction writers so reliably produce really great work, why oh why would their work require a special issue?

Thanks for the hope:)
I just turned 50 and have only been writing, in a more full-time and focused way, in the last five or six years. It's good to hear that I'm not all washed up before I even started..I love your blog and always find lots to to think about. Thanks.

Oddly enough, I had a professor in college who had drawn the opposite conclusion to Tannenhaus: he lectured us on the fact that lyric poets seemed to peak early, but in general novelists didn't start to write their best work-their deepest, most complex, most engaged work-until their 40's. I always took that as gospel, so I was surprised to hear anyone refute it.

By Doug Gibson (not verified) on 29 Jun 2010 #permalink

Interesting reading. I am 51 and have yet to publish something substantial. I sold a painting to a weeping patron.

I cannot think of myself as old. Which is why I run and continue to write, paint and at times tinkle the violin.

Though I do have days when I want to sling everything in the universe to another dimension.

I really appreciate this post. I've been looking everywhere for this! Thank goodness I found it on Bing. You've made my day! Thx again!