Robert McCrum has some harsh words for the Depends and liver spot set: you may not know it, but you’re done. Good art, says he, like short term memory and genital engorgement, is difficult to sustain into one’s 70s and 80s.
Ageing great writers recognise the inevitable no more than the over-optimistic late starter. Leo Tolstoy wrote “I Cannot Be Silent” at the age of 79. Resurrection, his last novel of any consequence, appeared in 1900 when he was 72. Three score years and 10 still seems to retain its biblical magic, though not, strangely, in art: Picasso, and Matisse painted memorably deep into their 80s.
But now that 80 is the new 70, you might think that literary endeavour would flourish among octogenarians. The evidence is not encouraging. Yes, Goethe completed Faust at 81, but here in Britain, both Graham Greene and William Golding published new, and inferior, books in their 80s.
Doris Lessing won the Nobel prize for literature in 2007, aged 87, and published The Cleft in 2008. But even her most ardent fans would agree that she’ll be remembered for The Grass Is Singing, and The Golden Notebook, published in 1962, when she was 43.
It’s a measure of the desperate condition of the British book trade that no publisher is going to tell a big-name writer that he or she would be better off leaving their latest typescript in the bottom drawer.