Do You Need to be Younger than 40 to Write Great Novels?

The other day, Little Brown Mushroom Blog linked to an article in the New York Times – an article which claims that most great novels are written by authors under the age of forty. The Little Brown Mushroom Blog was interested in this because they wanted to know if the same was true for photographers. I’m interested in this because I wonder if most great novels truly were written by authors under the age of forty.

Of course, I can’t deny the impressive array of evidence in The New York Times – novels including The Great Gatsby, Moby-Dick, and The Sun Also Rises (unfortunately, I haven’t read every one of these novels, so I’ll go along with the consensus view that all of them are ‘great.’) But I thought a good experiment would be to look at a selection of my favourite books, and find out at what age the authors wrote them.

Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien
According to Wikipedia, Tolkien started ‘a new Hobbit’ in 1937, which means he was around forty-five when he started writing it. He didn’t finish till twelve years later. Well, if he could put out three massive tomes of epic fantasy despite being the ancient old age (in writer’s years) of forty-five, there’s hope for all of us. (All of us who are brilliant linguists and university professors, at least).

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by CS Lewis
It’s a bit fuzzy as to when exactly CS Lewis actually started The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but it seems most of it was written 1948-1949. So Lewis would’ve been around fifty years old. Fifty! Another writer bucking the trend! Unless it’s merely British university professor who are clever enough to do this…

Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones
Here’s a book I absolutely love, which is NOT written by a British professor. Honestly, I’ve read this book hundreds of times over without getting bored. So… it was published in 1986. Wikipedia has no information on when Diana Wynne Jones wrote it, but let’s take a guess and say she started it five years before that. Five years is a long time to write a book, but let’s exaggerate for the sake of fairness… if it took her five years she would’ve been… forty-seven! Well over the alleged age of author senility.

Emma, by Jane Austen
Shoot, she was only thirty-nine when she wrote this. Maybe it’s only fantasy authors who benefit from maturity.

Admittedly, The New York Times article’s point is not to claim there are no late-blooming authors, but rather to refrain from judging authors because they are young, since many younger authors are brilliant. I just needed to reassure myself that my talent doesn’t have a sell-by date. After all, the short story I’m currently working (set in Brazil, by the way) is refusing to end, and the novel I mentioned before has not made a ton of progress in a while. I might be forty before I write anything worthwhile. 🙂

What do you think – does an author’s age matter?

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4 Comments

Filed under Howl's Moving Castle, Jane Austen, Lord of the Rings, On Writing, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

4 responses to “Do You Need to be Younger than 40 to Write Great Novels?

  1. Some Japanese famous writers have started to write a novel after they became 40 years old.
    By the way I’m still 35 years old. I may write a great novel. 🙂

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  2. Alexia

    Well, I don’t need to tell you that I completely disagree with that article. Look at Victor Hugo, he was in his fifties when he wrote “Les Misérables”.

    I have another example, but it’s probably not as well-known, because it’s very recent. Mary Ann Shaffer, author of “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” (if you haven’t read it yet, you should), worked as a librarian and in bookshops but her life-long dream was to publish her own book. Unfortunately, she died a few months before her novel was published in 2008 but let’s assume it took her five years too, or ten, she still would have been 64 ! And it was her very first book. So you see, I think it’s never too late when you’re passionate about something =)

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    • Good to know! I hope it doesn’t take me that long to achieve something in the writing world, but I know writing careers can be kind of unpredictable. So can inspiration. So you never know…

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  3. Pingback: Top Ten of 2011: Ugly People, E-Publishing, and Limericks | Stories and Stuff

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