When an author's powers wane

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When an author's powers wane

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1Cecrow
oct. 16, 2015, 9:59am

It seems most author's prime is between their twenties and forties, fifties if they're lucky, after which their work noticeably goes downhill. Terrible news for me at 42, having always dreamt of writing a novel "someday" and not there yet.

Sadly, there are some contemporary authors I once loved who seem to lack the skills now that they've aged. Is this a theory most everyone would agree with, or can you think of wonderful examples (exceptions?) where an author's later work shone as well as her/his earlier?

2lesmel
oct. 16, 2015, 10:14am

Is it the age of the author or the age of the reader? I would think change in reading interests and/or habits would be a more significant factor.

3southernbooklady
oct. 16, 2015, 10:36am

When we are young and less experienced, we are more likely to be impressed or influenced. As we gain in experience and become more certain of who we are, we are no doubt less open to revelatory moments, or perhaps we are less in need of them, and thus not looking for them. But this is an aspect of the aging of the reader, not the writer. When I look at the breadth of work from some of my favorite writers -- say, Naguib Mahfouz, or William Trevor, I am hard put to say that their late work is inferior to their early books, but it is true that it was the early work that caught me, and thus holds special affection for me.

4.Monkey.
oct. 16, 2015, 10:59am

Agreed with >2 lesmel: & >3 southernbooklady:. I think someone with the skills and the desire never deteriorates unless they actually deteriorate in their old age while continuing to try to write. As long as they still have something to say, and aren't merely trying to churn out something for money or pushy publishers or such, age doesn't matter a whit. Our own, though, certainly influences what we think of things.

5Cecrow
oct. 16, 2015, 11:55am

This is all very encouraging - there's hope for me yet!

6RickHarsch
oct. 16, 2015, 12:06pm

I won't be shy here: I love my early novels when I read bits of them again (published in latter 90s mostly, when I was latter 30s), but I would say my absolute best work was finished this summer, best and longest (560 pages or so).

I would also offer some easy names: Joyce, Gaddis, Gass, Beckett. Of non-English writers (aside from Beckett) I would guess that Vargas Llosa has a later novel to rival his second best earlier work, The War of the End of the World; R.K. Narayan wrote in English but was Indian and remained steady to near the end; Garcia Marquez spread his powers around after The Autumn of the Patriarch; Antonio Lobo Antunes shows no signs of wear; Vitomil Zupan kept going as long as he was healthy; Dosteovsky's best were his latest; Cendrars had a spectacular run in the '40s, when he must have been in his 60s, etc.
But that's not to say all authors are anywhere near alike in this respect. Who can explain the life and inspiration of Rimbaud? And what about the one book (for the most part) authors like Musil?

These questions are often interesting, but no answer is near accurate. Henry Miller didn't get published until he was 40 (I think, maybe older). So I would advise any 42 year old to, to paraphrase an old Greek history mentor, sit his ass down and write that novel. And the next one.

7elenchus
oct. 16, 2015, 12:31pm

Great question, interesting answers so far.

I've not yet read James Salter, having just learned of him within the last year or so, but the various reviews I've read and interviews I've heard, seem to indicate he's as strong in his late 70s as he was early on.

So I'd summarize by betting it's about evenly split between authors who maintain their powers into their later years, those who are best in their youth, and those who hit their stride after a considerable amount of work.

A related question: I wonder if publishing has been biased toward one or another author, either historically or perhaps just now? I could see the bias being there, in the adjudged "marketability" rather than in the work of the author.

8RickHarsch
oct. 16, 2015, 12:52pm

Publishing is biased toward first novels to some degree, which may seem odd as it is so hard to get published for the first time. But once one is, it is as if the industry is waiting for the messiah. Of course, they are always disappointed.

Another amazing writer who wrote til he died old, amazingly overlooked: Raja Rao.

9southernbooklady
oct. 16, 2015, 1:09pm

>6 RickHarsch: Henry Miller didn't get published until he was 40 (I think, maybe older).

I used to write for an e-zine that was specifically focused on writers who published their first book(s) after the age of forty, ei "Late Bloomers." There was never a shortage of material.

10RickHarsch
oct. 16, 2015, 1:32pm

SBL, Who was your favorite, if you recall and are willing to play along?

11Limelite
oct. 16, 2015, 1:45pm

"Great Literary Late-Bloomers"

My favorite first time writers are:

Frank McCourt, 66
Allan Gurganis, 42
Annie Proulx, 57
Isak Dineson, 50
Harriet Doerr, 73/4
Katherine Anne Porter, 72
Norman McLean, 74
Helen Hoover Santmyer, 88

Surprising authors of later in life first novels:

Laura Ingalls Wilder, 64
Raymond Chandler, 51
George Sand, 50

Are you an aspiring literary late-bloomer? There's a website for you.

12southernbooklady
Editat: oct. 16, 2015, 1:46pm

>10 RickHarsch: I wrote profiles of Samuel Richardson, WM Spackman, Mary Daly, Magdelena Tulli, Gaston Leroux, Daniel Mueenuddin, Josh Rolnick and Bruno Schulz. Schulz was my favorite, but of course there is a case where we will never know if his powers would have waned, since he didn't survive the war.

http://bloom-site.com/?s=nicki&submit=Search

13lesmel
oct. 16, 2015, 2:03pm

This thread reminded me of an interview with Donald Hall (who I have never read, but probably should): http://bit.ly/1MI5sRA. In particular, this part:

I went to Washington with Linda (his longtime companion), and we went to the various museums. In the National Gallery, there was a Henry Moore carving. I had written a book about Henry Moore. A guide came out and said, “That’s Henry Moore, and there’s more of them here and there.” Thank you.

An hour or two later, we had lunch; this is the National Gallery. When we came out from lunch, the same guy was there. My legs have no balance, and Linda was pushing me in a wheelchair. The same guy asked Linda, “Did you like your lunch?” And Linda said, yes. Then he bent down to me in the wheelchair, stuck his finger out, waggled it, and then he got a hideous grin and said, “Did we have a good din-din?”


You mentioned skills and aging and it popped into my head. Here's this well-respected former U.S. poet laureate; and some asshat treats him like a drooling idiot because he is in a wheelchair. No one deserves to be treated less than human, no matter the circumstances.

In the interview, Hall also talks about his slow decline in writing poetry (after 60 yrs of writing it) and subsequent switch to prose.

14Cecrow
Editat: oct. 16, 2015, 2:59pm

>11 Limelite:, you stunned me with Katherine Ann Porter on the list, but then of course, while her short stories for which she was well known came from well before that age, Ship Of Fools was 1962. Although it appears even her short fiction didn't appear until her forties. Wow, I did not know that.

Edit - I am loving the Bloom web site, thanks for that.

15Cecrow
oct. 16, 2015, 3:11pm

>12 southernbooklady:, assuming I read the correct profile about Samuel Richardson, am I to judge you rate his "Pamela" above "Clarissa"? (I can't get either of those touchstone links to work ... grr)

16lesmel
oct. 16, 2015, 3:37pm

>15 Cecrow: Touchstones: Pamela and Clarissa

17southernbooklady
oct. 16, 2015, 5:20pm

>15 Cecrow: Well I was tasked with writing about the author's first book, which was Pamela. That's white the profile concentrates on it. I did read Clarissa (I deserve a medal for that) but I didn't love either book. I found them interesting, but as curiosities more than as great literature. And really, the best thing about reading Pamela was then being able to read Shamela and get all the jokes.

18RickHarsch
oct. 16, 2015, 5:53pm

Thanks, SBL, interesting collection.

19ahef1963
Editat: oct. 23, 2015, 6:34pm

Reading some of the later Terry Pratchett books, obviously written when the Alzheimer's was beginning, was a very painful process. That was Alzheimer's, and not age, but it was so sad to see his decline.

20Meredy
oct. 23, 2015, 8:07pm

What became of Vladimir Nabokov, author of so many coruscating gems, was terrible to see in The Original of Laura. His family ought to have respected his wishes and kept that one dark and private.

21.Monkey.
oct. 24, 2015, 3:44am

>20 Meredy: But he was well aware that wasn't anything for publication, hence telling them to destroy it. I don't think printing out his notecards of a work in progress as a "book" is a valid measure of anything, aside of perhaps Dmitri's wish to either get money, or possibly more lovingly, just try to bring some new attention to dad. Had he actually worked it into a completed form, and decided it was ready for publication, I have ZERO doubt it would have been as impeccable as everything he ever wrote. As it stands, the cards make up something like 30 actual pages of manuscript. It's nothing and he knew it.

22Cecrow
oct. 26, 2015, 8:36am

Apparently Franz Kafka's wish was to have his entire body of work destroyed upon his death, but someone saved it all and thank goodness.

23Limelite
oct. 26, 2015, 12:50pm

Strictly speaking, I don't think P. D. James is an example of an author whose powers waned. She did produce Death Comes to Pemberley as her farewell novel, a volume that several of my reading friends wish she hadn't. I have not read it and have no opinion.

My question is, at 94 when she died, is it fair to cite "Pemberley" as a waning book? Just from the title, I'd say it was a slap at all the dreadful Jane Austen knock-offs that have plagued book stores in the last 5 years. Perhaps her message was, "Time to get over yourselves and find your own characters, plots, and creative milieu, people." Or it could have been a veiled warning to other mystery writers not to resurrect Dalgliesh and Gray into some watery version not really their own.

24Bookmarque
oct. 26, 2015, 1:15pm

While I do like James and have read all her books, I feel her powers didn't so much wane as petrify. Her early books are modern police procedurals, but unfortunately she didn't keep up with technology or techniques and mired Dalgliesh in 1980's science. I think she needed a research assistant in the worst way, but alas she didn't and I think her books suffered. If they'd been set in the time that matched the technology, they would have been better.

25Limelite
oct. 26, 2015, 1:45pm

Thanks for pointing that out. Shouldn't petrification sit side-by-side with putrefaction when it comes to waning powers?

A tid-bit about James. . .I read in a Guardian article a while ago (don't remember who wrote it) that she was a member of the House of Lords and apparently her votes or speeches indicated she was homophobic.

Who knew? Gives me an idea for a new topic.