For the past three nights—during hours when I could have been sleeping or drinking wine with friends or writing my own past-deadline journalism—I sipped tea and compulsively read Jamil Ahmad’s novel, The Wandering Falcon. It’s a beautiful book, sure, but it’s also a wise book, and its author—a first-time novelist—is 80 years old.
So I wondered: could a younger writer have published something with such emotional breadth and depth and range?
In an age when American culture is dominated by youth and celebrity (and the celebrity of youth), it’s hard to find a place where age is valued. But who would demand: “Get me the youngest heart surgeon imaginable!” Or: “I want an airline pilot who’s never flown a mile.” Or: “You know what I’d like? A teenage investment banker.”
Yet in literature, we now seem to value youth above all else. First novels by 20-somethings are treasured commodities, as if the young regularly have something interesting to say.
So in defense of experience, I present: Pauls Toutonghi’s Eight over Eighty.
1. Jamil Ahmad
Over the past 40 years he revised and revised his novel, tinkering with its linked stories while he lived and worked in the remote tribal regions of Pakistan. Meanwhile, his nation endured four decades of turmoil that unquestionably seeped into his writing. When Ahmad writes about broken childhood, he does so from a distance that lets him craft and shape its drama, to give his characters the emotional weight that they deserve.
2. Toni Morrison
I loved A Mercy, Morrison’s ninth novel, in part because of the way it interacted with the books that came before it—Beloved, The Bluest Eye, Jazz, Song of Solomon, and Sula (the five others I’d read). In 2012, she will release her 10th novel, Home. Morrison’s work changes—and deepens—as the novels accumulate in the memories of her readers.
3. William Kennedy
When John Sayles reviewed Kennedy’s new novel, Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, in the New York Times this October, he wrote: “This is not a book a young man would or could write. There is the sense here of somebody who has seen and considered much, without letting his inner fire cool.” Of course, the inner fire isn’t something that every writer carries into his or her 80s, but when it’s there—remarkable.
4. Ursula K. Le Guin
Last year’s Portland Arts & Lectures series in Portland, Ore., kicked off with Le Guin having a conversation, on stage, with Margaret Atwood. The night was memorable—in part—because Le Guin discussed her current projects, which encompassed stories, novels, nonfiction pieces, and drawings. Her 2008 novel, Livinia (based on her imagining of the life of a minor character in Virgil’s Aeneid), might have been her best book so far.
5. Nawal el-Saadawi
Few writers have accumulated a lifetime of material as rich and varied as the Egyptian novelist and women’s rights activist el-Saadawi. And the January protests in Tahrir Square energized the 80-year-old writer. In an interview with the BBC, she said that she was working on a new book, one that was very much fashioned from the present moment: “I will describe how in Tahrir,” she said, “we lived a dream—a dream in which we are equal.”
6. Joseph McElroy
At the beginning of the year, Dalkey Archive Press released the collection, Night Soul and Other Stories—to broad critical acclaim. There seems no end to the boundless energies of McElroy, who embarked on a West Coast tour in support of the volume. It is an intricate and complex book—and equals his longer works in its scope and complexity.
7. Khushwant Singh
Singh’s magnificent, unpretentious novel The Sunset Club follows the lives of three aging Indians—a Sikh, a Muslim, and a Hindu. The 96-year-old newspaper columnist has written—for the past several decades—a column entitled, “With Malice Towards One and All,” one of the most widely read columns in India.
8. Herman Wouk
Accumulated wisdom is evident in The Language God Talks, Wouk’s 2010 nonfiction epic. “The task totally engaged me,” the 95-year-old Wouk wrote of the book, in the Huffington Post. “I never tired, never once thought of giving it up.” And for this endurance—and his long, varied career, I (and many other readers) remain grateful.
Pauls Toutonghi’s second novel, Evel Knievel Days, will be published by Crown in July 2012. He teaches at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore.