Age and Greatness

Great books tend to be written by older people. Of course, there are always exceptions, but this little truism seems to be surprisingly accurate. I noticed a long time ago that some of my favourite books had been published by older writers. Ernest Hemingway was 53 when The Old Man and the Sea was published. J.R.R. Tolkien was 62 when the first volume of The Lord of the Rings came out. But is there any proof to the idea that great books are written by older people? Maybe.

John Updike was 50 when he won the Pulitzer for Rabbit is Rich.

Maybe, that is, if you use major literary prizes as a sign of a “great book.” I went through the last twenty-five years of Man Booker and Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winners. The average winner was 50 years old when the prize was awarded. The vast majority (using the standard deviation, if you are a statistics freak) was between 40 and 60. The youngest was Ben Okri, who was a 32 year-old babe in the woods when The Famished Road won the Booker in 1991. The oldest was Cormac McCarthy, who was 74 in 2007 when he won the Pulitzer for The Road.

So we have established that most winners of major literary prizes are older. I can think of a couple possible explanations for this.

Although these prizes are supposed to be for a specific book (unlike the Nobel Prize for Literature), it is possible that the judges are influenced by the writer’s career and body of work. I call this the Led Zeppelin effect.

The Grammy Awards completely ignored Led Zeppelin during the band’s career. In 1969, the year Led Zeppelin I and II were released, the Grammy’s Album of the Year went to Glen Campbell. I kid you not.

In 1980, when Zeppelin broke up, the judges belatedly realised that they had ignored some of the greatest musicians in a generation and looked like incompetent idiots. They finally made up for it in 1999, by giving former Zeppelin bandmates Jimmy Page and Robert Plant an award for a rather forgettable song. It was an open secret why Page and Plant won. Perhaps some of these literary prizes are given, maybe even unconsciously, the same way.

It is also conceivable that writing, unlike some other artistic forms, improves with time. A writer needs decades of experience, both as a human being and as a writer, before she can publish something great. If you have read any of Kurt Vonnegut’s very early stuff that has been popping up after he died, you know what I mean. There was a reason why this wasn’t published in his lifetime, literary executors.

There could be another reason why writers improve with age. This comes from recently departed genius Carlos Fuentes:

When your life is half over, I think you have to see the face of death in order to start writing seriously. There are people who see the end quickly, like Rimbaud. When you start seeing it, you feel you have to rescue these things. Death is the great Maecenas, Death is the great angel of writing. You must write because you are not going to live any more.

You know, he might have something there.

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One comment on “Age and Greatness
  1. Niko Holmen says:

    Surely a perfect piece of writing! We’ve book marked it and sent it out to all of my friends since I know they’ll be intrigued, thank you very much!

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