I took a college philosophy course once at LaSalle University, and the professor, a voluble young man, stated unequivocally in class that, in our “natural” state, we humans reach our physical and creative peaks in our twenties and thirties. His thesis was that people are meant to–that is, have evolved to–expire around age forty, after we’ve had time to breed and pass along to our young whatever knowledge we’ve gained in our lifetimes. Thus, like milk past its sell-by date, our bodies start to go bad–we use up our lifetime’s supply of melanin and our hair grays; joints designed to last only four decades wear out; organs, including the brain, begin to fail. “Can anyone think of any field of human endeavor in which people actually peak later than age forty?” he asked. I raised my hand.
“Novel-writing,” I said.
“No,” he replied. “Human creativity peaks young. Einstein came up with E=MC2 at the age of twenty-six. He spent the rest of his life searching for equivalent insights and failed.”
Knowing it was fruitless, I gave up the argument at this point, but for years the professor’s response has rankled. Surely, the sort of human creativity required to formulate Einstein’s theory is mostly inborn, mathematical in nature, and therefore fundamentally different from the creativity inherent in a masterfully made piece of fiction, which can only make itself evident through the prism of the author’s life experience. This is why the world is knee-deep in math and musical prodigies, but produces no seven year-old novelists–no good ones, anyway. I attempted my first novel at that age, but looking back on it now I realize that I didn’t actually know what paragraphs were. Also, I think I overdid the playground motif.
In order to make quality fiction, one must spend years refining and practicing one’s prose style, combine it with accumulated and hard-won life experience, and only then hope to create art. And that’s why literary fiction writers produce their most affecting and nuanced work, their masterpieces, in their forties, fifties, and sixties.
Or so I always believed. This question has become an especially pertinent one for me now, as I have (with seeming suddenness) become a middle-aged fiction writer. It makes it easier to face the prospect of easing my creaky body out of bed on a cold morning if I can tell myself that I’m in the middle of my prime as a maker of fiction. This idea, that I am now peaking as a writer, has lately become for me an almost religiously treasured belief, one that I have been employing as a mitigating psychological hedge against the horrifying, ever-more-real prospects of encroaching feebleness and ultimate oblivion. If my most creative year as a writer occurred back in 1982, as the professor would have it, then why exactly should I get out of bed?
In order to test my belief, I examined the published works of eight long-lived writers I admire to see when they produced their best books. With the randomness inherent in simply choosing the writers who happened to be grouped together on a particular shelf of my bookcase, I selected the following: John Updike, Barry Unsworth, Beryl Bainbridge, Iris Murdoch, Saul Bellow, Mark Twain, Vladimir Nabokov, and Leo Tolstoy. Did these writers do their best work at an early age, as my professor would have it, or did they create their masterworks later, as I would prefer to hear?
John Updike wrote a lot of books, but I think his best-written novel is Rabbit is Rich, published when he was forty-nine. Barry Unsworth, still alive and writing at eighty, wrote a novel that I consider a masterpiece, Sacred Hunger, when he was sixty-two. Beryl Bainbridge published The Bottle Factory Outing when she was forty-two; Iris Murdoch published The Sea, The Sea at age fifty-nine; Saul Bellow published Seize the Day at forty-one; Vladimir Nabokov published Lolita when he was fifty-six; Leo Tolstoy published Anna Karenina at age forty-seven. And Mark Twain wrote what is probably the best novel ever produced by any American, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when he was forty-nine.
I readily admit that my analysis is both subjective and unscientific, but if my professor was right about creativity, you’d think at least a few of these masterworks would have been made when the writer was supposedly peaking in his or her twenties or thirties. The fact that none of them was written at an age younger than forty-one is, I think, telling.
Perhaps the professor, if I had him here now (tied to a chair, say), would reply that novel-writing is not a “natural,” biologically-mandated human activity, that I might as well have cited “commercial airline pilot,” or “international diplomat” as careers in which people peak at a later age.
But I would counter that fiction-writing–that is, storytelling–has a special place at the very center of human culture. In class, the professor stated that one of the jobs we must complete before dying is to pass down our accumulated wisdom to the next generation. But the way we humans have always done that is by telling stories. Indeed, the craving to hear or tell a good story is, I think, rooted nearly as firmly in the human psyche as the cravings for food and sex. Have you ever missed a night’s sleep to stay up and finish a good book, or stayed to the end of a bad movie just to “see what happens?” Why do you think that is? I believe it’s because we desperately need stories in whatever forms they take: from literary novels to lame-brained sit-coms, prose poems to back-fence gossip. That’s how humans apprehend the world.
So I think I’ll untie the professor (poor guy–I hope I wasn’t too hard on him; he must be middle-aged by now) and get back to work.