According to The New Yorker's Summer Fiction issue, the odds of anyone writing anything of substance after they turn 40 are not good. That's disheartening, since I haven't seen 40 for more than a decade and in 2 days I'll be one year closer to 60. Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the The New York Time's Sunday Book Review, expands on that theory in his essay "How Old Can a Young Writer Be?" According to Tanenhaus, Herman Melville was 32 when he wrote Moby Dick. But Virginia Woolf didn't enter her prime until she was in her 40s. Pearl S. Buck was only 39 when she wrote The Good Earth, but she was 46 when she wrote Peony, the same year that she received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Should those of us in our 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond, content ourselves with literary obscurity?  Who are your favorite "over 40" authors?  What substantive piece are you working on? ANSWER THE POLL and help me compile an IMPRESSIVE list to fuel our over-40 ambitions!

Ambition. It's the one thing the writers featured in The New Yorker's Summer Fiction issue seemed to have in common, which I find ironic because I've been trying to learn these last few years to be less ambitious, less driven, to be less about striving and more about thriving. So this summer's newsletter is dedicated to things that help us thrive. Not the least of which is one another. Wishing you a brilliant summer solstice season!


To use the language of my generation, one way we can let readers know how "groovy" older women writers are is to write about themm, their books, their stories, on our blogs. I recently wrote about Thrity Umrigar on my blog at http://www.snaxonline.com and her new book--and she's definitely north of 40--a direction you'll note is always UP. Rosemary Carstens
Susan said…
Just another thing to stop us. I remember submitting to the New Yorker when I was in my twenties. I probably still have rejection notes from them. They used to be on heavy, cream-colored card stock. Probably collectible now!

So, from my file of famous late bloomers:
1. Edith Wharton published her first novel, "Valley Of Decision" at 40, and as we all know, that wasn't her best work.
2. Laura Ingalls Wilder became a columnist in her forties but didn't publish her first novel until her sixties.
3. Richard Adams bestseller "Watership Down" was published when he was in his fifties.
4. Henry Miller didn't publish his first novel, "Tropic of Cancer" until he was 44.
5. Frank McCourt won the Pulitzer Prize for "Angela's Ashes" -- he was 66!
I could go on. Let me know if you want more. Take that, New Yorker. You might have shut me down in my twenties but I'm ignoring you now.
Susan - what great examples! And yes, I'll bet your rejection "cards" are collectors. Judging by the replies I've been getting so far, the list WILL be an impressive one. Thanks for your names and titles!
Rosemary, I'll check out your http://www.snaxonline.com blog post - any woman named Thrity who is north of forty is worth reading about! Thanks!
sandra sanchez said…
I'm 64 and have written all the stories that I felt compelled to write. Would rather just hike and enjoy nature in awed silence BUT I have to say that I always thought a real writer needed to live life some before starting to write about it. Writers UNDER 30 may have developed great style but it takes a few more years to develop the kind of insight into human nature that informs a serious writer's characters. I wrote a lot of stories in my teens and twenties that I threw out not because they were not well written but because they struck me as superficial and immature, all style and no substance. I started over in my thirties and produced the work I am most proud of between the ages of 33 and 59. I don't write anymore because I feel complete with the work I did.
Sandra, you seemed to have reached a lovely state of contentment, "thriving" from the things you have already accomplished, rather than striving to accomplish more. I would love to read one of the works written when you were between 33 and 59. Could you recommend a favorite?
Peggy Sanders said…
Like all generalizations (and yes, this is one), the premise that 40 is too late to write the best books and essays is just plain silly. It was after I was 40 that I began writing; before that I was parenting and all that entails with my husband on the farm/ranch.

It was only after the kids left the nest (or flew the coop, as it were), did I begin. It is in our family's blood to write and yes, I do believe that.

Writing wasn't something I harbored until I "had time." It wasn't even on my radar until after 40.

I know I have a long way to grow in my writing and am encouraged each time I write, and read the works of other authors and essayists. I know I can do it!

The encouragement we get from Page and other writers absolutely motivates us to keep on keeping on.

I'm curious, how old the NY Times writer is who penned his opinion?
Peggy, I like your comment about writing "not even being on your radar" until after you were 40. A later-in-life endeavor doesn't mean a less worthy endeavor. Thank you!
Michael Shay said…
Almost every writer I read is over 40. Almost every writer I admire (except J.D. Salinger) wrote significant works when he/she was over 40. Many of them were "seasoned" over-40 humorists published by The New Yorker -- James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, S.J. Perlman, Robert Benchley, etc. I love reading The New Yorker's summer fiction issue. I enjoy some of the stories and some I don't finish. I pay very little attention to the magazine's "words of wisdom" about writing.
Unknown said…
Check out Jane Gardam, who wrote Old Filth. I don't know the details but I've heard that she was past 60 when she published her trilogy.
Unknown said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mike, good to hear from an author, and director of the literature program for the Wyoming Arts Council. Thanks for separating WHO The New Yorker publishes from WHAT they say about writing. It's all about ratings, yes? Also, thanks for adding Dorothy Parker's name to the list!
Balancement said…
Goethe didn't write Faust until he was in his mid-seventies. Age only tempers talent--it doesn't destroy it.
Jerry Eckert said…
Page, Your question prompted an extended essay, which I will put on my blog, thewordbutcher.blogspot.com with appropriate acknowledgements of course. My favorite example of wrinkled writers would by Norman Maclean, whose first book, "A River Runs Trough It," published when he was 74.
Justin Matott said…
E. Annie Proulx, T. C. Boyle, Tom Wolf, Jane Smiley, Truman Capote, Wally Lamb, Seuss, King, Koontz, Crichton, Patterson, Grisham, just to name some hugely popular and well published authors who were/are past the 40 mark... Seuss's best work was in his latter days.

Age is a number. Don't stop 'till your number's up!
Hey Justin! Like that red ball cap. I'm in Nevada on a ranch for a Kathleen Jo Ryan writing project - just helped move 100 head of horses. Never too old to write, never too old to RIDE!
Jerry, I love your "wrinkled writers" comment, and loved the blog you posted on THE WORD BUTCHER. I especially liked it when you said "Our words provide sea anchors in the headlong rush of impetuous cultural change." Nice!
Donna Hickey said…
Favorite over-40 authors:
Barbara Kingsolver (55) and Carlos Fuentes (81) are my two all time faves and they both truly write better with age and both still write with youthful passion. Fuentes is Mexican, and in his culture, as you probably know, artists of all genres are revered as they grow older. We need to get a clue.

The whole age thing that our society is obsessed with is disheartening. I sense that people feel discarded after a certain age, especially when I observe the faces of the elderly.
Unknown said…
Just a quick thought: First of all I feel that's a very male perception as my career in academia showed me many women didn't have time to write until they were over 40...
And Isak Dinesen was over 40 when she wrote Out of Africa...May Sarton didn't publish until she was 60 (Journals of a Solitude) ...There are others that may come I am sure....Perhaps we need to look at the more 20th and 21st century women authors to find the over 40 productivity...

another thought...Your note really struck me because famous French writers have said that no one writes with substance until after 40! Cultural perceptions differ! (Also in French tradition - c'est a quarante ans que les femmes sont belles = It's at 40 that women become beautiful...
Rae, I love your comment about the French writers, and about women becoming even more beautiful after 40!
Jerry Eckert said…
Counterpoint to the Over 40s can't write. Best writers over 80:
Jerry, thank you for the "counterpoint" link. Great site, and great lists of powerful authors producing powerful works in their later - translate best - years.
Lindy said…
Fantastic lists. Many of my favorites - those who have remained favorites and who began before 40 and continued to write better and better as they aged: Susan Tweit, Kathleen Dean Moore, Edward Abbey, Barry Lopez, Barbara Kingsolver, Terry Tempest William, Maya Angelou, Susan Wittig Albert, Ann Zwinger to name only a few. I could go on and on . . .

Page - I absolutely loved "In Search of Kinship" but I have no idea how old you were when you wrote this.

I want to thank Donna Hickey for her thoughts/words regarding our American culture being obsessed with youth - disheartening.

Lindy in the Sonoran Desert
Page Lambert said…
Lindy, Susan Tweit would be thrilled to see her name in this list. And thank you for the kind words about In Search of Kinship. I was 44 when it was published, and probably 42-44 while I was writing it. So yes, over 40!
Priscilla said…
Page, I love this post! Writing is a skill that only ripens with age. That means there's hope for late bloomers like me. I'm counting on it, because I just cut down my other work to focus on finishing this book! At the AWP conference in April I looked around at the hordes of younger writers. First I felt old. Then I felt happy: so many writers-in-the-making! If I'm still around, I look forward to watching their work ripen too.
Priscilla - thanks! And how wonderful that your attitude shifted from "feeling old" to gratitude for all the young writers, exploring themselves and the written word. Yes!
Beth Hadas said…
So many wonderful over-40 writers I could send you a huge list. But let's just say Alice Munro and leave it at that.
Cat Blount said…
Hey , Page --

Well here's my reply to the New Yorker. I like their investigative journalism but have never thought much of their fiction or poetry choices. so HA!

What do they know that we don't?? More importantly what do WE know that they don't?? I wouldn't want to be the author that wrote that over 40 baloney. They have a pretty grim future ahead of them. Maybe theiy're already there adnout of ideas. Here! You can have some of mine!!

makes me wanna get my shoe out! (as my nanny used to say.)

Love, Cat
Mary Hagen said…
Dear Page,
What an interesting theory, but then it's just a theory and would need to be proved through the scientific method otherwise it is meaningless.
Mary Hagen
Doug Pepin said…
I seem to recall that Annie Proulx was well beyond the age of forty
when she began her writings.
Doug Pepin
Candy Jones said…
Richard Erdoes didn't start righting until he was 50, and that first book was the Lamedeer (ARchie) and he made the Dick Cavett show!
Barb Nilson said…
Hi Page: Always enjoy getting your e-mails; I'll be 82 this summer and I'm doing the Centennial book for Renton High School; have interviewed over 100 graduates and taken photos...etc. Speaking of writers over 40...in the last 20 years I've done two other complete historical books and edit a couple. Keep up the great retreats. Barb Nilson
Sally J. Walker said…
Even when getting my BFA and listening to professors laud The New Yorker, I wasn't a fan.

The magazine, their views & articles give off the vibes of urbane, arrogantly youthful elitists. Just my opinion . . . and this just confirms it.

Even Hollywood is turning away from its decades of sexist and age discrimination. Good storytelling is good storytelling whether the author is 16 ot 76. Lots of people on the rolls of WWA and RWA proving that!
Eric Schreider said…
--Ayn Rand published Atlas Shrugged (still selling thousands of copies annually, 18 years after her death), at age 52.

--Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables at age 60.

--Robert Heinlein wrote these classics after age 40:
• The Man Who Sold the Moon (age 43)
• (Screenplay) Destination Moon (age 43; NASA folks say this movie
made space travel a real possibility)
• Stranger in a Strange Land (age 54)
• The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (age 61)

Raymond Chandler wrote:
• The Big Sleep (age 51)--later a Humphrey Bogart classic
• Farewell, My Lovely (age 52)--Filmed twice
These were the first two Phillip Marlowe novels

My screenplay Faithful won the Southwest Writers Screenplay Competition when I was 61; I began it at age 57.

Kit Brown-Hoekstra said…
Happy belated Bday! Hope you had a great one!

Am in Amsterdam visiting Dave's family.

Grandma Moses didn't even start painting until she was in her 70s so....and wasn't it Mark Twain who said, "there are lies, damn lies and statistics..."? According to the NY Times awhile back, the chances of getting married over 40 are about the same as the likelihood of getting hit by a meteorite....I got married at 43...

I'm glad you aren't buying into the culture of fear...

Kit Brown-Hoekstra
Debbie Smith said…
Hey Page! "Debbie Smith" here. Read the latest newsletter and just had to send you this youtube video in case you haven't seen it. It's a gem. Enjoy!
Camille Lione said…
Happy Birthday, Page!
At 63 I am still writing (badly, but writing...) and I will one day produce that long awaited book. Have a super day with a better year ahead.
Love, Camille

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