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.
- I recommend the Edmund Wilson one. No, I haven’t read it. But, hey, Edmund Wilson. [↩]
- And when did accomplishing something in your early thirties make you a prodigy? Please. [↩]
- Except for those of who don’t think it was amazing. [↩]
- Except for all of season seven, and too much of seasons four, five and six, which are the opposite of amazing. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- I think the best novel I’ve written is the first novel I wrote. It’s unpublished. [↩]
- You know when I’m not freaking out about this world I live in melting into the sea. [↩]