A Week in Books

Age cannot wither them: Teen prodigies and old stagers
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The Independent Culture

I'm thinking of founding a campaign to raise the age of consent for publishing contracts. Perhaps the saintly bus boss, Brian Souter, will drive a million or two my way. We could have called it "Save the Clause" if he hadn't grabbed the name, so "True Lit Waits" - in homage to those US conventicles of virgins - will have to do. Things have got urgent: Bidisha, a fictional débutante at 19, or Richard Mason, at 20, were worrying enough. Now the cradle-snatchers at Simon & Schuster have lured a 16-year-old public schoolboy, Anselm Audley, into the grubby trade with a £50,000 advance for his fantasy novel, Heresy. Meanwhile, Douglas Murray (now a venerable 20) next month publishes his life of Oscar Wilde's homme fatal, Lord Alfred Douglas. Tina Brown has snaffled that as a launch title for her Miramax books imprint. Talk about feasting with panthers.

There are intellectual endeavours at which the best practitioners can peak still in their teens - pure mathematics; its close cousin chess; even (if you're a Rimbaud) lyric verse. Prose narrative does not remotely belong with them. And high-performance veterans shame the current cult of youth year after year.

Penelope Fitzgerald, who died last week, turned to fiction after 60 and, aged 80, won the US critics' circle award with The Blue Flower. Saul Bellow has, famously, just managed a stylish double whammy: fatherhood and a luminous new novel-stroke-memoir at 84. And any fan of sharp, poised social comedy, driven by immaculately droll prose, should investigate the New Zealand writer Barbara Anderson. She has just released her sixth novel, Long Hot Summer (Jonathan Cape, £15.99). Born in 1926, she made her début in 1989.

All of this might sound slightly condescending: a pat on the back for the wrinklies. Not at all. I have just finished judging the two prizes, run by the Society of Authors, which reward the best first novels by writers over 40 (the McKitterick) and over 60 (the Sagittarius). Of course, it was fun to rumble the streetwise, post-40 newcomer whose publisher had promoted him as a hip young hustler, and the sexy, Ally McBeal-ish saga of urban dating and mating whose author sailed easily over the 60-plus barrier.

Yet, in general, the strength of the entries meant that age limits seldom crossed my mind. The judges chose splendid winners for both awards; they will be revealed on 7 June. At the moment, all I'll say is that the creative imagination carries no bus-pass.