09/01/2011 11:17 am ET Updated Nov 01, 2011

Literary Late Bloomers

The distinguished literary critic Robert McCrum wrote in The Observer last year that "Writers who flourish at the peak of their powers for longer than a decade, or even two, are rare birds," and he declared that peaks generally come early: "Most literary careers begin, and possibly end, before the age of 40." Mr. McCrum could name only two exceptions -- John le Carré and PD James -- who were able to defy this pattern and to "sustain a run of quality and a sequence of winners."

(With apologies to J.P. McEnroe): Mr. McCrum, you cannot be serious. A few significant writers who were late bloomers? Tolstoy published War and Peace when he was 41, and Anna Karenina eight years later, at 49. Dostoevsky published Crime and Punishment at 45, and The Brothers Karamazov at 59. Henry James published The Wings of the Dove when he was 59, and The Golden Bowl at 61. Mark Twain published Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when he was 50. Thomas Hardy published Tess of the d'Urbervilles when he was 51, and Jude the Obscure at 55. Joseph Conrad published Lord Jim at 43, and Nostromo at 47. Virginia Woolf published Mrs. Dalloway at 43, and To the Lighthouse at 45.

More recently, Saul Bellow published Mr. Sammler's Planet at 55, and Humboldt's Gift at 60. Philip Roth published American Pastoral at 64, and John Updike, The Witches of Eastwick at 52. J.M. Coetzee won the Booker Prize for Life & Times of Michael K, which he published at 43, and again for Disgrace, at 59. (Coetzee's perception of the literary life cycle contrasts sharply with that of Mr. McCrum: observing that he had written "nothing of substance" before 30, he reflected that "I am not sure this was wholly a bad thing. How many men in their twenties write novels worth reading?")

The timing of writers' careers -- like those of other artists -- depends heavily on the nature of their work. Literature's young geniuses -- Melville, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Pynchon -- are conceptual novelists who produce symbolic works, with elegant plots carried out by simplified characters. In contrast, Tolstoy, James, Twain, and the other writers listed above in this post are experimental novelists, who generally privilege careful observation and description of lifelike people and situations, informal or vernacular language, and unresolved plots, with ambiguous or open endings. Conceptual careers often peak before 40, but experimental careers generally continue far longer, as writers' understanding of their subject deepens and mastery of their craft grows. Recognizing the existence of those two types of writer, and their differences in their life cycles of creativity, enhances our understanding of literature. It also gives hope to writers who did not write the Great American Novel or win the Booker Prize before they graduated from college.