The media has been all aflutter this week over comments made by the best-selling author Joanna Trollope at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai. In her speech she gave the opinion that writers create their best works after the age of thirty-five, when life has ‘knocked them about a bit’, and advised younger writers to be in no hurry to seek publication. She said: ‘in order to write good fiction, I think you need to have got a lot of living under your belt… And that includes the pain as well as the joy.’
Some in the media countered Joanna’s opinion by listing great works written by those under the age of thirty-five. ‘The pronouncement may come as a surprise to the likes of Eleanor Catton, who won the Man Booker Prize aged just 28 in 2013 for The Luminaries,’ wrote the arts correspondent for the Telegraph. ‘It could also raise eyebrows among fans of Charles Dickens, who wrote Pickwick Papers when he was 26, William Shakespeare, who is believed to have drafted his first play around the age of 25, and Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein at 20.’ Modern examples perhaps strike more of a chord; writers of the bygone era experienced more earlier in life, because life was immeasurably harder.
Joanna Trollope wasn’t, as some have suggested, dismissing younger writers – and she knows full well there are exceptions to the rule. But generally, I think she makes a good point. Emotion is the backbone of fiction; and to convey emotion that affects the reader sufficiently to draw him or her into the story, one must have experienced the emotion personally. How can you write of joy, lust, longing, love, loss if you have not experienced them deeply? It is experience that builds understanding of these emotions for us all. Those who are writing masterpieces young are perhaps more intuitive or, sadly, have experienced much at a young age. But many writers need those years of learning and living in order to sit down and create a book that really impacts the reader.
I wrote my first novel as a very young woman. I thoroughly enjoyed the process, and I learned plenty along the way. Then I wrote another book, and another book, and another – honing my craft, developing my voice and style. But I did not seek publication for my books until I had more experience; until, in fact, I was nudged to do so by my now grown-up children. When I came to look at the books I had been writing again, with the benefit of more years of experience, I was able to revise and edit them into something undoubtedly better, and I was glad that I had waited.
But that is not to say that younger writers don’t have the right to seek publication. The choice is personal. As Samantha Shannon wrote after discussing the matter on BBC Radio 4 with Joanna Trollope, ‘You don’t need to rush to be published, but it’s worth remembering that you don’t have to wait, either. Quality is defined by the reader, and each of us will have a different view of what makes a writer experienced.’ It’s clear to me that with each book you write, you learn – and so there is something to be said for writing a book and then letting it go, and then writing another and another.
Also in the news this week has been the backlash to an article written by a former creative writing teacher,Ryan Boudinot, for The Stranger magazine in which he openly discusses the issues with students of the craft. One of the serval points of contention is this:‘If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.’ He talks about the need to have been ‘crazy about books as a kid to establish the neural architecture required to write one’. With this in mind, perhaps younger writers can built their craft early enough to publish, say, in their twenties. But Ryan’s closing point speaks volumes:
‘I advise anyone serious about writing books to spend at least a few years keeping it secret. If you’re able to continue writing while embracing the assumption that no one will ever read your work, it will reward you in ways you never imagined.’
What it all comes down to patience, practice and having faith that in a world that gallops at an ever-increasing pace, your moment will come.