Authors need to be in their 30s or older before they have enough life experience and writing know-how to pen a dazzling and challenging novel. Right?
Usually, but not always. Sometimes, authors bring the precocious to the prose while still in their 20s. Many authors have written good novels in their 20s, but how many have written great ones?
I thought about that while recently reading The Luminaries, the 2013 novel published just before author Eleanor Catton turned 28. It was already surprising that her first book (The Rehearsal) came out five years earlier, but her Booker Prize-winning second novel is exceptionally mature, complex, riveting, and long (830 pages) for a work written at such a young age. Also, The Luminaries is set during New Zealand’s 1860s gold rush and has a mostly male cast, so Catton’s sprawling book required lots of research and imaginative leaping. (But I should note that her part-mystery novel could have been about 200 pages shorter, and its concluding “flashback” chapters are not quite as satisfying as what comes before.)
A number of young 19th-century authors wrote classics, too. For instance, the 1818-born Emily Bronte saw her highly original Wuthering Heights novel published in 1847, and her 1820-born sister Anne — after warming up with 1847’s straightforward Agnes Grey — broke feminist ground with 1848’s formidable, compelling The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The often-secluded nature of the Bronte sisters’ lives lent itself to lots of intense writing time — with another participant of course being Charlotte Bronte, who was in her early 30s when Jane Eyre rocketed to fame.
The 19th century was also a time of much less distraction (obviously no computers, social media, blogs, TV, movies, radio, etc.), so aspiring young authors could more easily concentrate on writing.
Mary Shelley hadn’t even turned 22 when Frankenstein was published in 1818. It didn’t hurt the development of Shelley’s literary genius that she was the daughter of writers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin as well as the wife of renowned poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. (The influence of Wollstonecraft — who wrote the novel Mary: A Fiction before age 30 — on her daughter was not direct; she unfortunately died just days after giving birth.) Before turning 30 herself, the 1797-born Mary Shelley went on to write three more novels — including the imaginative, apocalyptic The Last Man (1826).
Back in the 18th century, Goethe became famous for The Sorrows of Young Werther at age 25.
Charles Dickens wrote five novels before age 30, including some memorable ones, but his more challenging classics would come later. The 1819-born Herman Melville had a similar career trajectory, writing four novels by 1849 but Moby-Dick and other immortal works after that. And W. Somerset Maugham wrote four novels in his 20s but none of them the books we most remember him by.
Stephen Crane penned The Red Badge of Courage and all his other works as a 20-something, of course, because he never reached 30. F. Scott Fitzgerald had two fairly good novels (This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned) out in his mid-20s before penning the masterful The Great Gatsby while still under 30. His contemporary, Ernest Hemingway, came out with The Sun Also Rises at age 27.
Moving further into the 20th century, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was released when author Carson McCullers was 23. Interestingly, that novel’s skillful interweaving of various characters’ lives made it the most complex of all the works she would write.
The flip side of this discussion is authors who didn’t write their debut novel until well on in years — with one of the most striking examples being Harriet Doerr’s Stones for Ibarra getting published when she was 74.
Your favorite authors who wrote great novels while still in their 20s? (You can include ones I mentioned. 🙂 ) Your favorite authors who wrote great novels as senior citizens? And, lastly, any thoughts on age as it relates to writing — including whether there’s an ideal time of life to pen a novel?
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I’m also in the middle of writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.