Is Novelist Joanna Trollope Right that You Can't Be a Great Novelist Until Age 35?
British writer Joanna Trollope seemed to have not heeded the late, great Aaliyah's words of wisdom, that "Age Ain't Nothing But a Number." In an interview, Trollope told The Telegraph that you can't be a great novelist until age 35. Though she says it's a "rather unkind" thing to say, Trollope believes that writers have to have experienced life before they can write about it. It's hard to argue with that, but the age limit? Seems kind of silly, especially thinking about famous writers who have proved her wrong.
Trollope has written 17 novels, in addition to a handful of historical and romance novels under the pen name Caroline Harvey. Her most recent release, 2014's Balancing Act, follows four women who join the family business. She also wrote a contemporary reworking of Sense & Sensibility for The Austen Project. The author was born in 1942 and published her first novel Eliza Stanhope in 1978, at age 36. As she told The Telegraph:
I think in order to write good fiction, I think you need to have got a lot of living under your belt. And that includes the pain as well as the joy. ... It's a rather unkind thing to have to say, and I don't mean it unkindly, but I always say to people you will write much better fiction after the age of 35 than before. Merely because life will have knocked you about a bit by then. I don't mean it unlikely, I only mean it in terms of don't be in a hurry.
You know what? I agree with you, Trollope. You must have had some experiences — good and bad — out in the great, big world before you can sit down to write about fictional characters' life experiences. It's hard to write a love story if you've never even had a crush. But why are we stamping a big fat 35 on it? What Trollope seems to be ignoring is life has "knocked around" plenty of people way before age 35.
Of course, people are quick to point out the massive names who published their famous novels before the age 35. To be fair, Trollope never said it was impossible — in fact she said "I don't mean it unlikely" — but it is worth it to quickly take a look at some names. Eleanor Catton is the most recent, highly publicized example, as she won the Man Booker Prize in 2013 for The Luminaries when she was 28. Jane Austen allegedly wrote the draft of Pride and Prejudice at 21. Our girl Zadie Smith published White Teeth when she was 25, and it was on the Orange Prize Nominee for Fiction Shortlist. J.K. Rowling was 32 when she started Harry Potter. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was 20, "after falling in love with Percy Shelley, giving birth, and suffering the death of a baby," so yeah, life kicked her around a bit.
But this isn't to nitpick at Trollope, because what she says is ultimately completely fair and accurate. She knows the importance of growing up, meeting all kinds of people, and having crucial life experiences.
And you have to be in tune with other people; you have to understand that the suffering of other people is not negligible than even if you think they're making the most enormous fuss ... What I try to do is get inside head after head after head.
And there are plenty of writers and readers who are stoked with Trollope's assertions, finding inspiration in writing later on in life.
Trollope has also recently spoken out on literary festivals' value of celebrity above quality of writing.