What’s Age Got to Do with It?

Why do so many people have an obsession with how old people are when they make art?

Hmmm. I think that sentence demands a bit more context. I keep seeing comments like, “OMG, Buffy is amazing and Joss Whedon was only in his early 30s when he first created it.” Or Arthur Rimbaud was one of the most influential French poets ever and he quit writing when he was 19!”

There must be something wrong with me cause I think, “So what?”

Either the art is good or it isn’t. Who cares how old the person was who created it? Doesn’t make it any better.

Not to mention that there’s an argument that the only reason people are still talking about Arthur Rimbaud is because he wrote all his poetry before he was nineteen. According to this argument his work was amazing for a teenager and that’s the only reason we remember him today. Well, that, and his truly crazy life, which makes for astonishingly entertaining biographies.1 And the fact that his lover, Paul Verlaine, was a one-man publicity campaign, who would not shut up about Rimbaud’s supposed genius.

*Heh hem* I digress. Is Buffy the Vampire Slayer amazing because Joss Whedon was only in his early thirties2 when he started working on it or is it amazing because it’s amazing?3 I say it’s simply amazing and Whedon’s age is irrelevant.4

If a book or a poem or a movie or a computer game or a painting or whatever blows you away why does it matter how old the person was when they made it?5 If they were 62 does it stop being amazing? How about 72? If they were only 20 does that make it more amazing? Why? Explain to me cause I don’t get it.

Some people write their best work when they’re young. Some when they’re old. Some when they’re middle aged. Some are pretty consistent throughout their career. Some, like Georgette Heyer, have mixed careers, dotted with marvellous and indifferent work throughout. No matter how old you are you can only do the best you can at that moment in time. Not to mention that no matter how old you are, what you think is your best work, others may think is your worst.6

I think what bothers me about this constant, “OMG this book is amazing! And the author was only 12!” is that it undercuts the idea that those of us who make a living writing (or creating other art) work really hard at and strive to improve. It feed into the myth of genius, of someone just producing great work full blown out of no where, without an apprenticeship, without any hard yakka, or learning, or improving. I happen not to believe in genius. I don’t believe art comes out of nowhere.

I do, however, understand the feeling of panic when you realise that, say, Georgette Heyer’s first novel was published when she was a teenager. By the time she was fifty years old she’d published close to 40 novels. Many of my favourite writers have prodigious and enviable outputs. Patricia Highsmith for one. I still haven’t read all her novels and short stories. Diana Wynne Jones has also published an astonishing number of wonderful books and they keep coming. Yay! On the other hand, Octavia Butler, Jean Rhys and Angela Carter have a relatively small volume of work. All of which I treasure and clutch to my chest. My favourite Jean Rhys novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, was published when she was in her seventies. If I can write half so well when I’m in my seventies, well, I’ll be very happy indeed.

I do envy writers like Wynne Jones and Heyer. I’ve published five novels, but my odds of writing another thirty-five before I turn fifty are, well, forget about it. Or even before I’m seventy. I’m not a super fast writer. I was able to keep up the one-novel-a-year pace for five years and in those years I was trying to write two a year. But next year there’ll be no new novel from me. I doubt I’ll ever write as fast as one a year again. But I have just as many ideas as I ever did. Sometimes I freak out realising that I may not live to write them all.7

But never for very long. Because, honestly, there are other things I’m more worried about not doing before I die. Like spending enough time with the people I love. Doing as much good as I can. Watching my friends’ children grow up. Eating more mangosteens. Stuff like that.

  1. I recommend the Edmund Wilson one. No, I haven’t read it. But, hey, Edmund Wilson. []
  2. And when did accomplishing something in your early thirties make you a prodigy? Please. []
  3. Except for those of who don’t think it was amazing. []
  4. Except for all of season seven, and too much of seasons four, five and six, which are the opposite of amazing. []
  5. For the purposes of this rant, I’m ignoring the fact that many works of art are not created by a single person—Whedon did not make Buffy alone—especially not movies or television or computer games. []
  6. I think the best novel I’ve written is the first novel I wrote. It’s unpublished. []
  7. You know when I’m not freaking out about this world I live in melting into the sea. []


  1. anne on #

    I think I must agree, the whole age thing is irritating at best. of course, it’s cool when someone writes and they’re “young”, because …well, because they’re creating at an early age, they’re focused, etc. It’s cool when someone (Grandma Moses?) creates later in life, because it’s cool that they’re still creating, not giving into that “too old” idea.
    By the by, love your books, love your blog!

  2. christy on #

    I don’t know. I think maybe one can find the author/artist’s age or some other outside factor interesting or notable without it necessarily being a qualifier.

    Like, I love this book. I love it no matter what. On a separate note, the author was really young/old/illiterate/homeless/in Antarctica when he wrote it. He wrote it out freehand on Hello Kitty stationary. He used ketchup as ink. Isn’t that something?

    It definitely could sound like you’re saying, wow, this is a good book for something written in ketchup ink. And it may be challenging to find a way to phrase it that makes it clear that’s not what you mean. But it still could be that you appreciate both the work and its circumstances separately.

  3. Q on #

    This is excellent.

  4. Kelly on #

    Is this opinion about age and artists the reason that there is no place on the Internet where you can find out your age, Justine? I agree with your premise that genius(?) in art should not be associated with age; however, I am interested in the age of the artist, especially an author, so that I can more fully understand their frame of reference/experience. It’s not an obsession, but it is of interest to me. I’m one of your older fans (late 50’s) but that’s good because I buy multiple copies of your books for my daughter and granddaughter.

  5. El on #

    I like context, I like meta, I find myself fascinated by the intersection between art and life. I don’t argue that others should share this fascination, but it entertains me constantly. Age is a part of that; it’s not necessarily *important* but it’s *interesting*.

  6. AliceB on #

    There’s this theory that “real” genius happens when someone is young. Like Mozart. Or Mendelssohn. And so we’re so excited to see someone young succeed because we’re witnessing the real thing — exotic and unusual. But if you look at lives of geniuses, that isn’t necessarily so — geniuses exhibit their genius at lots of different ages.*

    Picasso was brilliant early. Cézanne later. But there’s no question Cézanne was a genius — he had to work at it to get there. Like many writers. Some writers hit a nerve early. Some become better and better with each new piece. I kind of like the second version — it gives me hope.

    (And then there’s the idea of genius suggested by Elizabeth Gilbert in her TED talk, which is that genius is really some gremlin outside of the artist’s control. You have to do your work, and sometimes the genius shows up and sometimes it doesn’t, and there’s really no point sweating it. I kind of like that idea, too.)

    *I think I’m stealing this from a review I read of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell — although I haven’t read the book. But the notion stuck with me.

  7. Joey-la on #

    I agree with everything that you are saying, and I have sometimes found that people will think that a piece of art is good purely because the person who created it was young. Take S.E Hinton’s ‘The Outsiders’ she wrote it when she was 18 or something and the year before got a D on her report card for writing. But I have read the book and personally did not think it was fantastic and I think that people only think it is great becuase she was young. Really, her prime writing years were when she was very young because since then there has not been very much from her since then. Okay, I take that back – she has written eight more books, but then only other one I have heard of is Rumble Fish.
    I couldn’t care less how old someone is when they the create something the only thing that matters is if what they have made is good or not!

  8. Herenya on #

    I find ages of artists interesting. Part of it is being a writer myself, and hence finding information about published writers fascinating. I like knowing that some manage to get somewhere with a story they started writing in high school, or that some don’t publish anything until much later in life. It gives me hope.
    Another part of it is background information, wanting to place an artist’s art into some sort of context – what generation they belong to, where they were at in their lives. I find it amazing to think that there are people my age (or younger) who have careers as singers, or actors, or writers, and to compare what their lives must be like with my life (unemployed student).

    I agree that art should be judged for its own merits, not for the circumstances of its creator, but I think the circumstances can add to one’s appreciation/understanding of the art. Or maybe it is just simple human curiosity with people, wanting to know about person behind the art.

  9. Sherwood on #

    Patrick O’Brian got published when he was a teen, but nothing was successful until the Aubrey/Maturin series, which he began publishing at age 55 . . . and then took ten years to become successful.

    (I keep telling myself this.)

  10. Justine on #

    Kelly: Hahahaha. Sorry. I’m just laughing at the idea that I can control the internets. I mean, I wish. That would be awesome. First thing I’d do is make all the racist and sexist trolls either go away or reform their evil harrassing ways.

    Thanks so much for introducing your family to my books! Much appreciated.

  11. Steve Buchheit on #

    The age code is also used by perfectionist grandmothers to use against their grandchildren. “See, he/she made his first million before he was out of high school. What’s holding you back?”

    On the other end it’s used as a “not too late to do this” kind of argument.

  12. Brit Mandelo on #

    I intentionally don’t talk about my age just because of that crap. There is nothing that irks me more than someone being “impressed” by my work because I’m young. So what? The only reason I’m where I am now is because I started studying craft with serious intensity at a young age, too. It’s just a matter of practice. That “one million words of shit” thing seems pretty accurate to me; doesn’t matter if you start in your forties or your teens.

  13. Shaideneuse on #

    I think that the obsession with the age of an artist has to do with the amount of work they will be able to complete before they die (assuming, of course, that they have an average life expectancy…whatever that is these days). If you like the artist, you will naturally want the opportunity to see more of their work. If they’re younger, there’s more time to make more of it (assuming they do it regularly) and therefore more will be made available for the happy consumer. Pretty much the idea of instant gratification, which is what everyone’s ALL ABOUT these days (so says everyone else who’s “not”. The world is confusing).

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