Posted by on Jan 19, 2009 in sustainable writing careers | 4 Comments

Why Robert McCrum is wrong (partly)

Riffing on Diana Athill and her memoir published age 91, he says that ‘Old people, in general, don’t have literary careers.’

Well yes and no. He then points out some of the exceptions: Daniel Defoe first published aged 59. Mary Wesley first published aged 71. William Golding banging out novels aged 78. And he goes on to say ‘That’s how most writers begin to attract attention – as new young voices with something original to say. Poets, especially.’

Oh please! Like mathematicians, you ain’t got it unless you got it young, right?

Wrong. What the publishing world likes is new young voices – like new flavours of ice-cream: they are easy to sell. What it isn’t so keen on is classic flavours, because everybody knows about them already. Publishers like splashes, and the younger and more personable the writer, the bigger the splash. That has nothing to do with career length, or quality.

His second argument is a more interesting one – the contention that ‘most so-called literary careers … last 10 years, if you’re lucky’ and his examples are fascinating ones: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Joseph Conrad all of whom, he says, wrote their best works in a single decade of life. As I say, it’s an interesting contention, which can really only be measured against the life-spans of classic writers. Henry James doesn’t fit in there though, neither Tolstoy nor Flaubert match that claim (although only just not).

Um … can I just say: Marquez, Borges, Llosa, Lessing, Sir John Mortimer (oh much loved and recently deceased at 85), and then, moving genres a bit: Alan Bennett? Arthur Miller? And William Trevor? And Truman Capote? And Karen Blixen?

Interesting, but not exactly robust, those arguments.


  1. Nik's Blog
    19th January 2009

    Makes for interesting musing, Kay. But a career can mean and depend on so many things, and as to what’s the best work, again, difficult to say for sure. Writers write; some of it’s better than others, and liked more. Or less. I’m not disagreeing with you, more just typing out loud!


  2. John Soanes
    20th January 2009

    Interesting to hear Mr McCrum say this, given that he wrote an excellent biography of PG Wodehouse, whose writing career lasted 72 years…

  3. Paul Lamb
    21st January 2009

    … and Philip Roth!

  4. Kip de Moll
    22nd January 2009

    Glad to know there are a few who still hadn’t published by my age. Gives me just a little more hope on a grey day.


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