Written by John K Danenbarger
May 15, 2020
In 2010, writer Jim C. Hines conducted a survey of professional novelists. He wanted to know how writers broke into the business, and what it really took to land that first book deal. The results threw up a number of interesting statistics. Only one of the 246 respondents had self-published before they sold their book to a publisher. A quarter had sold their books without using a literary agent. On average, it took a writer 11.6 years to sell their first novel, a number that rose to more than fifteen years for authors without degrees who had never attended a workshop or a convention. With a preparation time that long, it’s no wonder that the average age of a debut novelist in the survey was 36.
That sounds surprising. We’re used to hearing about writers who struck gold and signed their first book contracts when they were barely out of college. Norman Mailer was just 25 when The Naked and the Dead came out. Thomas Pynchon was 26 when he published V. Mary Shelley, of course, was still a teenager when she wrote Frankenstein. More recently Zadie Smith wrote White Teeth before she was 25, and Eleanor Catton had already won the Man Booker Prize for The Luminaries when she was 28.
But if 36 was the median age in Jim Hines’s survey, then half the authors who responded were even older when they sold their first book. There’s no shortage of great writers, both classic and contemporary, who broke into professional novel-writing relatively late in life. J.R.R. Tolkien, Joseph Conrad, and Virginia Woolf were all well into their forties when their first novels were published. Alexander McCall Smith was 50 when his first book, The №1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, came out.So does it matter when it happens? Does youth give writers time to learn their craft? Or does life-experience give a novelist a greater understanding to pour into a book?
Kazuo Ishiguro thought that youth was an advantage but only because authors fail to develop. He famously told an interviewer that novelists tend to peak before they are 40, and that “it’s very unlikely for someone to write a great novel after that.” He was 54 when he said that, and it’s possible that he was worrying about his own declining performance.
Some young authors though are at risk of proving him right. Jonathan Safran Foer burst onto the literary scene at the age of 25 with Everything is Illuminated. His second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, was published three years later and received mixed reviews. Writing in The New Yorker, John Updike praised Foer’s first book as “astounding, clownish, tender, intricately and extravagantly plotted.” By contrast, Foer’s second book, he says, “seems thinner, overextended, and sentimentally watery.” His third book Here I Am didn’t come out for another eleven years.
You might expect the opposite to happen. The decade-plus that new authors have to spend before they sell their first book is the time it takes to hone a skill, to understand how to structure a book, to develop characters, and to pace scenes.
But a novel is more than a piece of craft. A work of literature also carries a message about the human condition. By placing deeply-drawn characters in challenging settings, a novel shows us who we are and why we are never quite who we think.
That understanding is difficult to obtain while sitting behind a keyboard. A writer who begins writing in his/her twenties, like Jonathan Safran Foer, will have done nothing but write — or try to — by the time he/she reaches his/her forties. That gives him/her a thin reservoir of experience from which to draw his/her stories. Joseph Conrad’s nearly twenty years as a merchant seaman, including three years captaining a steamer on the Congo River, would have shown him a part of the world that few others had seen. It was that experience he was able to dredge to create Heart of Darkness. Had John Le Carré not experienced life as a British Intelligence Officer behind the Iron Curtain, his Smiley novels would have had none of their realism or their credibility.
And sometimes the age of the writer says something about the message in the book. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale came out when she was 46, the work of a mature woman who will have experienced plenty of misogyny and discrimination at first hand. The same story written by a woman in her early twenties might have felt more alarmist and less grounded, a worry about what might happen rather than the logical extension of experiences already seen or suffered.
All authors start writing when they can no longer resist the urge not to write. It then takes them time to understand how to write, to learn how to craft a novel, and to understand that reading a lot of books does not make one a writer any more than sitting in a lot of chairs makes one a carpenter. While young writers will have more time to hone that craft and to become better at creating stories, that development is never guaranteed, and older writers will have more experience to pour into their messages and to draw their characters.
In the end, it’s not the age of the writer that matters. It’s what they have to say and the way that they say it. Period.
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