Boyd Tonkin: It's never too late to start writing fine fiction

'Older readers have begun to worry that the book business no longer cares about their taste'
Click to follow

It's a commonplace of current cultural chitchat that novelists, along with police officers, prime ministers and defeated opposition leaders, are getting younger all the time. Ravishing babes and handsome hunks scarcely out of their teens will rustle up a threadbare synopsis, pin it to a portfolio of moody portrait shots (the fewer clothes, the better), and have their drooling agents send the result to Megabucks Publishing. Whereupon huge cheques, chart-topping sales and media celebrity will reward the tender prodigy ­ at least until the wrinkles start to show.

Like many beguiling myths, this one has its roots in some sort of reality. Gormless, trend-worshipping publishers, obsessed with their own vanished youth, have gambled absurd six-figure sums on pretty, vacant newcomers in recent years. Yet, with a few exceptions, this money has gone straight down the tube (aptly enough, since in London that's where you will find most of the headache-inducing adverts for them). All the boiled-sweet posters and bicycling cover-models in the world will not save the latest flat-sharing romp among wacky, up-for-it twentysomethings from terminal idiocy. Well, it's their funeral (rather than their HoneyMoon).

Faced with this underage orgy of mass-market fiction, older readers (and writers) have rightly begun to worry that the book business no longer cares about their taste ­ or their cash. Thankfully, all this hype conceals a more complicated truth. Rather like Gordon Brown, doing some redistributive good by stealth, many publishers continue to support novelists on the basis of genuine ability rather than age. Yet the increasingly hysterical ageism of their trade means that they will never boast about it (or pay the beneficiaries enough).

This gives the McKitterick and Sagittarius Prizes, which I helped to judge this year, an especially important role. Awarded by the Society of Authors, they honour first novels by late starters. For the McKitterick, entrants must be over 40; and for the Sagittarius, over 60. If anyone suspects that the latter, in particular, means a pat on the back for a game old-stager with more guts than gumption, then let them read the two superb period thrillers by last year's Sagittarius winner, David Crackanthorpe: Stolen Marches and Horseman, Pass By. I would back these two gripping accounts of resistance and collaboration in occupied France against Sebastian Faulks or Robert Harris any day.

We made this year's awards on Wednesday evening, in the Kensington roof-garden above what (according to generation) you may recall as either Biba or Derry & Toms. The Sagittarius went to The Pig Bin, an offbeat, moving and hilarious novel of growing up in the Midlands of the 1940s, by the artist and art-teacher Michael Richardson. Giles Waterfield, formerly director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, took the McKitterick with his troubling, unsentimental elegy for a pre-war English family living on the French Riviera, The Long Afternoon. Interestingly, both these victors have a lifelong expertise in the visual arts. Perhaps a few of our bored senior novelists should think about investing in a sketchpad or a camera.

Gymnasts and swimmers may peak in their teens, chess masters, computer wizards and mathematicians in their twenties, but novelists have no obligatory sell-by date. Precisely because fiction is a synthetic, impure art of language, not a narrowly focused gift with a strong genetic element, it's never too late to begin. Among the best-loved British novelists of the past few decades, the subtle and erudite Penelope Fitzgerald got going in her sixties, and the scandalous, erotic Mary Wesley in her mid-seventies.

Even those who started young but ran out of puff in middle age can still harbour reasonable hopes for renewal. The enfant terrible Philip Roth, of Portnoy's Complaint, now looks like a clumsy amateur beside the four masterworks of his reinvigorated, sixtysomething self: Patrimony, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain. Thomas Mann, who began so young and so earnest, had to wait until he was nearly 80 before he published a proper comic novel: The Confessions of Felix Krull.

This year's McKitterick and Sagittarius contenders included names already eminent in neighbouring fields: the poet and journalist Blake Morrison; the academic and short-story writer Jane Stevenson; the former Beirut hostage and memoirist Brian Keenan; and the journalist Brian Clarke. It was also fun to discover that certain books promoted by publishers for their cool and modish style or subject came from writers eligible for a senior beginner's prize. Take a bow, Matt Beaumont, the not-quite-teenage author of the much-hyped e-mail novel " e.". Then again, when did calendar age ever correspond with outlook or attitude? Two words should silence anyone who thinks that fresh minds can only find a home in young bodies: William Hague. Oh, go on ­ surely you remember him?