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The Writer in Winter

Life Lessons

My first published novel was about old people; my hero was a 90-year-old man. Having lived as a child with aging grandparents, I imagined old age with more vigor, color, and curiosity than I could bring to a description of it now.

I don’t mean to complain. Old age treats freelance writers pretty gently. There is no compulsory retirement at the office, and no athletic injuries signal that the game is over for good. Even with modern conditioning, a ballplayer can’t stretch his career much past 40, and at the same age an actress must yield the romantic lead to a younger woman. A writer’s fan base, unlike that of a rock star, is post-adolescent, and relatively tolerant of time’s scars; it distressed me to read of some teenager who, subjected to the Rolling Stones’ halftime entertainment at a recent Super Bowl, wondered why that skinny old man (Mick Jagger) kept taking his shirt off and jumping around. The literary critics who coped with Hemingway’s later, bare-chested novel Across the River and Into the Trees asked much the same thing.

By and large, time moves with merciful slowness in the old-fashioned world of writing. The 88-year-old Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Elmore Leonard and P.D. James continue, into their 80s, to produce bestselling thrillers. Although books circulate ever more swiftly through the bookstores and back to the publisher again, the rhythms of readers are leisurely. They spread recommendations by word of mouth and “get around” to titles and authors years after making a mental note of them. A movie has a few weeks to find its audience, and television shows flit by in an hour, but books physically endure, in public and private libraries, for generations. Buried reputations, like Melville’s, resurface in academia; avant-garde worthies such as Cormac McCarthy attain, late in life, bestseller lists and The Oprah Winfrey Show.

A pervasive unpredictability lends hope to even the most superannuated competitor in the literary field. There is more than one measurement of success. A slender poetry volume selling less than a thousand copies and receiving a handful of admiring reviews can give its author a pride and sense of achievement denied more mercenary producers of the written word. As for bad reviews and poor sales, they can be dismissed on the irrefutable hypothesis that reviewers and book buyers are too obtuse to appreciate true excellence. Over time, many books quickly bloom and then vanish; a precious few unfold, petal by petal, and become classics.

An aging writer has the not insignificant satisfaction of a shelf of books behind him that, as they wait for their ideal readers to discover them, will outlast him for a while. The pleasures, for him, of book-making—the first flush of inspiration, the patient months of research and plotting, the laser-printed final draft, the back-and-forthing with Big Apple publishers, the sample pages, the jacket sketches, the proofs, and at last the boxes from the printer’s, with their sweet heft and smell of binding glue—remain, and retain creation’s giddy bliss. Among those diminishing neurons there lurks the irrational hope that the last book might be the best.

John Updike is the author of more than 50 books including The Widows of Eastwick (Knopf, 2008), his latest. His novels have won the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Rosenthal Award, and the Howells Medal. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Martha.

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