In the same week that choreographer Arlene Phillips (aged 66) is rumoured to have been given the chop from Strictly Come Dancing and replaced by a former contestant (aged 30), Alan Yentob’s Imagine followed The Company of Elders, a dance company whose members’ ages ranged from 61 to 85, as they rehearsed their latest contemporary performance at Sadlers Wells.
Part of me thinks it’s terrific that an hour of prime-time television has been devoted to older dancers. Another part feels uncomfortable, just as it did during the Susan Boyle fiasco. Is this a celebration of talent, or does it lend more weight to the underlying cultural belief that older people are unlikely to be successful in their chosen field?
There’s a great democracy about writing. Few can tell, from reading a book, how old the author actually is. You can write a novel at the age of 14. You can write a novel at the age of 84. Whether that same democracy applies to publishing a novel is another matter.
‘Mary Wesley!’ I hear you cry.
Indeed. After 35 years of writing, Wesley’s first novel was published when she was 70, and she went on to write another fourteen in the next ten years. But Mary Wesley – like Susan Boyle and The Company of Elders – is the exception to the rule, the one who became famous as much for her advanced age as for her prose (though her prose is magnificent).
A similar prejudice applies to subject-matter. Writing about older people is a bit of a no-no, I’ve been told. In a society obsessed with youth and with fending off any sign of ageing, who wants to read about it? Too depressing, is the received wisdom. Too downbeat. Even though the majority of the book-buying public are middle-aged or over.
Prejudice, it seems, extends in both directions. A well-known writer of women’s fiction was recently quoted as saying that no-one should write a novel under the age of 35 because people younger than this haven’t been ‘knocked about’ enough by life. Is suffering a prerequisite for writing stories that people love to read? And aren’t many people ‘knocked about’ quite effectively by life before the age of 35?
However, most ‘youngsters’ have the prospect of a long writing life ahead of them, whereas anyone over the age of, say, 60, may be considered a bit of a liability in the longevity department. We all know that publishers rely on an author producing several books before they begin to make a profit. Who can blame a publisher or agent for being wary of taking on an older writer?
And yet, time is a friend to writers. Unlike a dancer, a writer can continue to flex her writing muscles into ripe old age, can practise and improve her skills as long as her mind, imagination and perseverence continue to function. A lifetime's experience, together with the wisdom gleaned along the way, are far too precious to be written off.
Can you be too old – or too young – to be an author?