Octogenarians authors don't feel the love

Robert McCrum hates on older authors, saying their work starts to take a nosedive with age. He writes:
If most writers' reputations are made, or at least begun, before the age of 40, then very few novelists put many runs on the scoreboard after 70. Arguably, they can even start to damage their reputations, as anguished fans concede that their idols have feet of clay.
I think the argument McCrum is trying to make is that a lot of great authors have great first works, and after that pretty much everyone tanks. That perhaps "people run out of ideas eventually, especially after three decades as a writer."

I don't think an 80 year old is any more likely to write something terrible than a 20 year old (which is to say, most people's books are terrible regardless of age. Except for your novel, reader. That one is great. That guy you hate? His is terrible). Thoughts?


  1. "Take Vladimir Nabokov. There is every reason to suspect he knew that The Original of Laura was far below his best work, but he battled on with it..."

    Because he knew what the critic does not: that one's "best work" becomes that way by dint of enormous effort, over time. Which ran out for him. That's all.

    It's just as likely that the reason some late books by some older writers are inferior to previous work is that they've eased up on themselves, as have their editors. It's not an inevitable, doddering lack of artistic skill or imagination.

  2. I took a cognitiwe psychology class that focused on expertise. If I remember correctly, it takes 10 years of deliberate, focused practice to "excel" and an author tends to "peak" between 35 and 40.

  3. Sorry, that should be "cognitive" psychology.

    Another thing: writing has one of the latest peak points. Athletes tend to go downhill after 20 and even chess players peak in their thirties.

  4. Whatever. I'd rather have my favorite authors try and fail than not try. I think fans of Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, and Ralph Ellison (all of whom only wrote a single novel) would agree.