Old people in fiction

I haven’t undertaken a statistical analysis, but there are probably fewer old people in fiction than real life. Let’s try to find out why. Hey you over there, novelist, why have you no older characters in your books? I write for the YA market, I’m afraid, it wouldn’t be appropriate. (YA stands for Young Adult, there are a lot of them out there, and some of them read YA fiction.) Besides, he continues, I like to write from experience and I haven’t experienced being old. Well, I can scarcely credit the testimony of my ears! He hasn’t experienced being a girl or a woman either but that hasn’t held him back.

I have been alerted to this subject by a couple of small things in books I’ve been reading lately.

‘They had not touched the real pain in my back. I felt like I was seventy years old.’

Ah, the infirmity of age. If the old aren’t decrepit already they’re heading that way fast. Yet I know for a fact that healthy old people exist.

‘Imogen, who must be at least seventy, starts giggling.’

Clearly, Imogen isn’t acting her age and should know better how to comport herself.

Am I feeling too touchy about this? Am I, by any chance, seventy myself? Well, I was last year but I’m not now. And it also occurs to me that the writers in question may not have considered that some of their readers may actually be seventy years of age.

But some authors are at home with the old. The one who springs to mind for me is Ring Lardner. Remember him? He wrote short stories, several of which not only contain older people but actually major on them. This is remarkable for several reasons. First off, as one of his characters might say, it happens very rarely. And secondly, he died at the age of forty-eight and so had no direct experience to draw on. But reading his stories I have to assume he observed old people quite a bit. ‘The Golden Honeymoon’, for example, is narrated by an old man who plainly still loves his wife. Lardner knows that old people entertain the same range of emotions as younger ones, extending even to envy and jealousy. As with Imogen and her giggling, you’d think they’d know better. But the old are people too, so they don’t.

English: Photo of American sports columnist an...

English: Photo of American sports columnist and short story writer Ring Lardner (1885-1933); cropped by uploader. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My favourite Lardner story is Alibi Ike, so called because the eponymous Ike is always coming up with reasons for not committing. I don’t see many references to Lardner these days, and not many more to H L Mencken, who said this of him: ‘Lardner knows more about the management of the short story than all of its professors.’


9 thoughts on “Old people in fiction

  1. You’re right–I haven’t read too many novels that have an older protagonist. When they do, much of the novel is spent in the character’s past. One of my favorite older characters is Jacob Jankowski, the nonagenarian in “Water for Elephants.” I actually preferred him older compared to the flashbacks of him younger. The author gave him such character. Every scene with him as an old man was a treat to read.

  2. Well, I’ll do my best to repair the shortfall. ‘Once upon a time there was an old man who sat on a rock contemplating the absence of a green lawn. He remembered so well the old Victa that his dad used to rattle around with in the old back yards at Yarangabilly. It was all so long ago. (He mused)

  3. I quite agree that authors should use their imagination to get into the heads of both the young and he old as well as the male and female. Of course it is the younger protagonist (not the author) who is surprised by Imogen’s giggling. Imogen herself keeps up with and partakes of all the activities that her more youthful co-travellers engage in – demonstrating the misconceptions of her companions. Sadly there is also a marketing bias to have younger main characters, which is odd considering the likely average age of the most prolific readers.

  4. Your comment is entirely correct and I knew the same applied to the other quotation, taken from a book entirely in the first person. Marketing bias is beyond my understanding, like a wart on the end of a nose. I can see it but I don’t have to like it. (Or is this ‘wartism’ coming out?)

  5. Murder She Wrote. Or Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. They seem to be iconoclastic. An aside to other reading. Me, I think it’s because I still feel young. I can’t relate to old stuff yet (though I’m old by my 20 and 30 standards).

  6. I hadn’t thought of Miss Marple, don’t know why. I feel young in certain ways, being still as anarchic as before. On the other hand, I note I am more irascible than in the past, something I will have to watch.

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