A blog on reading, writing and life

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Who is too old to be a writer?

It seems like every few months, the literary magazines are hailing a new 22-year old as the next big thing. I know a lot of people who get discouraged seeing incredibly young people praised again and again, and I began to wonder how how old history's most critically-respected novelists were when they were first published.

For this sample, I used the authors from Modern Library Board's list of best 100 novels. It is far from a perfect list--of the 75 writers on this list, only 8 are female--but the important thing was that the all novelist here were chosen by group of independent editors.

The purpose of this list is not to prove that most writers were accomplished by a certain age, but rather to demonstrate the range of ages that authors published their first novels. Certainly a large cohort were first published in their mid or late-twenties, but there are many respected writers who didn’t get a book published until well into their thirties or forties. This particular list doesn't have anyone beyond that, though they are abound.

This list notes the age the author published their first work of long-form fiction, which in most cases is not their best known or most respected work. In fact, in my research I found that a few of these writes later disowned their first books. Also, Short stories, nonfiction and poetry are not counted here. Many of these ages are likely off by a few months due to when birthdays fall in relation to publication dates. Since many writers appear multiple times on the Modern Library list, I ordered them by their first appearance.


James Joyce: 34
F. Scott Fitzgerald: 24
Vladimir Nabokov: 27
Aldous Huxley: 27
William Faulkner: 29
Joseph Heller: 38
Arthur Koestler: 29
D.H. Lawrence: 26
John Steinbeck: 27
Malcolm Lowry: 24
Samuel Butler: 37
George Orwell: 31
Robert Graves: 30
Virginia Woolf: 33
Theodore Dreiser: 29
Carson McCullers: 23
Kurt Vonnegut: 30
Ralph Ellison: 38
Richard Wright: 30
Saul Bellow: 29
John O’Hara: 29
John Dos Passos: 24
Sherwood Anderson: 40
E.M. Forster: 26
Henry James: 35
James T. Farrell: 28
Ford Madox Ford: 18
Evelyn Waugh: 24
Robert Penn Warren: 34
Thornton Wilder: 29
James Baldwin: 29
Graham Greene: 26
William Golding: 43
James Dickey: 47
Anthony Powell: 26
Ernest Hemingway: 27
Joseph Conrad: 38
Henry Miller: 43
Norman Mailer: 25
Philip Roth: 26
Jack Kerouac: 28
Dashiell Hammett: 35
Edith Wharton: 38
Max Beerbohm: 39
Walker Percy: 45
Willa Cather: 39
James Jones: 30
John Cheever: 45
J.D. Salinger: 32
Anthony Burgess: 39
W. Somerset Maugham: 23
Sinclair Lewis: 27
Lawrence Durrell: 23
Richard Hughes: 29
V.S. Naipaul: 25
Nathanael West: 28
Muriel Spark: 39
Rudyard Kipling: 26
Wallace Stegner: 28
Elizabeth Bowen: 28
E.L. Doctorow: 29
Arnold Bennett: 37
Jack London: 27
Henry Green: 21
Salman Rushdie: 28
Erskine Caldwell: 26
William Kennedy: 41
John Fowles: 37
Jean Rhys: 38
Iris Murdoch: 35
William Styron: 26
Paul Bowles: 38
James M. Cain: 42
J.P. Donleavy: 29
Booth Tarkington: 30

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