At what age do writers write their best books?

This is in response to this article in the New York Times. All the books I mention in the list below are, arguably, more famous (certainly more iconic) than those mentioned in the Times.

Authors and their greatest books:

James Joyce: Finnegans Wake (arguably his best book) Age 57

Dostoyevsky: Brothers Karamazov (arguably his best book)  Age 60

Tolstoy: War and Peace (arguably his best book) Age 41

Balzac: Cousin Bette (arguably his best book) Age 47

Zola: Germinal (arguably his best book) Age 45

Victor Hugo: Les Miserables  (arguably his best book) Age 64

Dante: The Divine Comedy  (his best book) Age 65

Charles Dickens: Great Expectations (arguably his best book) Age 48

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3 Responses to At what age do writers write their best books?

  1. Tanenhaus baffled/irritated me with that one; I began reading it with the hopeful sense that he was taking the NYer to task for the arbitrary nature of its “20 under 40” meme when, as it turns out, he was, in essence, arguing that a “20 under 30” list would have made more sense!

  2. brendanconnell says:

    Yes, there seems to be this mythology out there that art/writing/life is a young person’s business. It is not that young people never produce great things or show promise, but most of the masterpieces of the world have been produced by people over 40.

    Unfortunately someone like Tanehous choses to pick mostly from modern sources, and even then from a very limited pile.

    • Dead on. Martin Amis, in the War on Cliche, offers a more balanced view. He says writers “turn good at thirty” and hit their peak at forty” but doesn’t hammer home the notion that the best work is necessarily behind a writer at forty. For poets it is fifty when they hit their peak.

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