Monday, June 14, 2010

Novelists: how young is 'young'?

In the New York Times, Sam Tanenhaus ponders the notion that the best fiction is written by people (he mostly talks about men) under 40.

“Writers are not scholars but athletes, who grow beer bellies after 30,” as Updike (then well into his 30s) wrote in “Bech: A Book.” He was jesting, but only in part. Not every major fiction writer is a natural, but each begins with a storehouse of material and memories that often attenuate over time. Writers in their youth generally have more direct access to childhood, with its freshets of sensation and revelation. What comes later — technical refinement, command of the literary tradition, deeper understanding of the human condition — may yield different results but not always richer or more artful ones.

To which I respond: Patrick O'Brian, Mary Renault, Sigrid Undset, Daphne du Maurier (I like her short work better than her novels), Charles Dickens... I could go on.

The novelists I admire, the ones who write rich, plotted stories with a deep understanding of humankind, do their best work as they get older. A lot of them write historical novels. (Or, as Hilary Mantel might say, contemporary novels set in other times.) Their primary focus isn't autobiographical navel-gazing, nor the flash and fiddle of pushing the form--no second-person present tense musings from the point of view of a tablespoon. They're expanding their understanding, and ours, of the most fascinating subject of all: people. They play with culture and politics and love and war, the ebb and flow of society and civilisation. They look at people and the systems we create (and destroy).

The Times (not the NY but London) has an article by Sarah Dunant regarding the new Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. The writers she names are all at the top of their game, all in their fifties (except Simon Mawer, who is sixty-something). I've read and enjoyed most of them. (Thorpe and Mawer are now on my list.)

Novels by mature writers hold a mirror up to culture. Let the eager, dewy people play the finger-exercises of experimentation. Grown-ups are doing the real work. Grown-ups have the wit, wisdom and patience to get magisterial.

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