“The fact is that authors seldom retire. Many don’t want to; others couldn’t afford to. So they keep going till death drags them from their desk or they lose their marbles, whichever fate strikes earlier. Unfortunately they may find that while they still have their marbles, they no longer have a public, those who used to buy their books having already suffered one of these fates, or having simply stopped reading new books – even new books from old authors. Losing their public, they are likely, quite understandably, to lose their publisher too. This may grieve, but not entirely surprise, them; it began to seem likely when they discovered a couple of books back that their new editor was a decade or two younger than their own middle-aged children.
“We used to live on royalties,” Anthony Burgess once said to me, “but now we live on advances.” This was true in his time, but now the advances are shrinking, and the royalties disappearing. So they go on working, but do so, if they are honest, in the knowledge that what they are writing in their old age is not near as good as the best of the books they wrote thirty or forty years ago. This is sad but not surprising. They no longer have either the physical or mental energy that used to drive them on. Moreover they have probably exhausted their material, and any new material they happen on may be thinner than the old stuff.
Occasionally they pick up a novel they wrote long ago, and read it with surprise, admiration, and then pain. And then they think: “Fielding and Jane Austen and all the Brontës were already dead at the age I was when I wrote that – and so they didn’t have to find matter for a new novel in their sixties, seventies, eighties…”
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