Just like a fine wine, some writers improve with age
Reading through publishers’ catalogues of what lies in store for readers in 2011, I was struck that many of the ones I found most enticing had one thing in common. Among the offerings from the finest literary writers are a new novel by Ali Smith, a memoir of bereavement by Joyce Carol Oates, and an account by Annie Proulx of building a house. Another one that promises great things is Sarah Brown’s reminiscences of life in Number 10. All, you’ll note, are by women; and all the authors are – how to put this politely? – let us say, not in the first flush of youth.
As an almost exact contemporary of Smith, I mention that fact without flinching. In fact I’m growing to appreciate how good it is to accept the glories of middle age rather than tiptoeing anxiously around in that limbo where it’s not quite clear if you have stepped over that invisible line between relative youth and undeniable maturity, and still cling pathetically to any compliment that suggests the giver has mistaken you for someone five years younger.
With this new-found confidence in mind, I spent an enjoyable afternoon last week reading a memoir by writer and sometime columnist Jane Shilling, to be published later this month, all the while grumbling out loud – a very aged thing to do – whenever I disagreed with her. Which was often.
Titled The Stranger In The Mirror (Chatto & Windus, £16.99), this is Shilling’s account of her middle years, and the emotional strain of passing from comparative youthfulness into that unglamorous, often mocked, zone of mid-forties and beyond. A strong vein of melancholy runs through this beautifully written, emotional work, as well as a great deal of self pity as Shilling mourns the loss of her looks and her options.
For such an intelligent woman, inevitable physical changes seem to preoccupy her disproportionally, and yet who can blame her for grieving. I doubt there’s a woman over the age of 40 who does not share some of those feelings. Where for men middle-age represents the zenith of achievement, power and hence attractiveness, the opposite remains true for women, no matter how enlightened society thinks it has become.
However, although it won’t remove the sting of lost beauty, there is a book coming out this spring I would recommend to Shilling, and to everyone of a certain age (men included), that may diminish some of the sorrow of advancing years.
The Secret Life Of The Grown-Up Brain, by Barbara Strauch, argues that far from dwindling with every passing birthday, the human brain only reaches its finest hour in middle age, a time frame that, moreover, is generously defined, since in her terminology it stretches to 69.
In the words of one American reviewer, “Brains, like certain French cheeses, get better with age.” Strauch, who is science editor at The New York Times, has combed through recent research to discover that mental agility and the ability to process complicated material swiftly and effectively is at its best in the years between the early forties and late sixties. Short-term memory may be less reliable, and the body on an inexorable downward slope, but the mind itself is in tip-top condition.
Might this explain why so many of the best books on publishers’ lists are from the ranks of the silver-haired? From Julian Barnes to AS Byatt, Edna O’Brien to Philip Roth, superb fiction continues to flow from long-serving pens. One used to assume that older novelists continued to pull off their old tricks because they had a superior wealth of experience to draw on that mercifully reduced their literary handicap in the face of younger competition. This new research, though, might explain why some older writers actually improve with age. Not only do they have greater wisdom to marshall, but they also know how most effectively to use it. They may not be able to weed the flowerbeds with such ease, but their other plots are in fine fettle.