Cynthia Ozick’s sentimental excursus in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review is hard to figure. Is she merely being ironic? Or does she actually mean some of it?  She differentiates two separate groups of writers: young writers who are all about ambition, networking, money and glitz; and old writers who focus instead on crafting a good story.

Maybe what she really wanted to say is that she doesn’t like creative writing programs and networking, which is of course just fine. I guess that there are not too many older people who spend as much time networking, as we now refer to keeping up with friends, as young people do. When you are young and haven’t forged a “way” into which you can get set, you spend a lot of time keeping up with this person and that person — because who knows, they may turn out to be the sort of person you want to keep by you. Older people know who they like, and are happier to restrict their socializing to that select group — which may of course in extreme cases be as small as one. I think we all pretty much know this, and I don’t believe it has any implications for writing, so why are we devoting a whole page of the Book Review‘s all too small allotment of pages to saying it? And the suggestion that today’s older writers, when they were young, were somehow above all this sort of behavior may be true of Ms Ozick, but surely just wasn’t the case.

Samuel Johnson famously said “Nobody but a blockhead ever wrote except for money” (Boswell’s Life of Johnson, April 5th 1776). Boswell adds “Numerous instances to refute this will occur to all those who are versed in the history of literature”, though he doesn’t say whether he made this rejoinder to Johnson’s face. We may not agree with the sage either, but who among us ever thought that it was only young writers who cared about money? This horse doesn’t need beating with example after example. Of course, just as with friends, one can draw an equation between money-needs and youth. As people get on they tend to accumulate more, and need less as children grow up and leave home, so the search for royalty income may become less fevered. But writing for money can’t really be a habit more widespread in any one age group than in any other.

In what world is it true to claim “Old writers are taken to be as nonessential as old magazines that long ago expired: they are repetitious and out of date, they fail to be of interest even to themselves, they are worn out”? (I would conclude that all this must be irony, were it not for the fact that if you remove the irony, there’s not really very much left in the essay.) Just a couple of pages before Ms Ozick’s piece we find the week’s fiction bestseller list headed by The Girl of the Train by Paula Hawkins. It’s not altogether clear what age she is, but if she’s been a journalist for 15 years before turning her hand to fiction, she has to be in her mid thirties. Maybe this counts as young. Running down the list from there we find Anthony Doerr is 41; C. J. Box, 47 or 48; Anne Tyler, 73; Kazuo Ishiguro, 60; Debbie Macomber, 64; Kristin Hannah, 54 or 55 ; Dennis Lehane, 49; Clive Cussler, 83; Danielle Steele, 68; Ian Caldwell, 39; Jeffery Archer, 74, and so on. Now it’s true Mr Cussler does have a co-author, so maybe Ms Ozick, now 86, could argue that he’s obviously “nonessential”, but looking at these ages one is not hit in the eye with the conclusion that age is any barrier to writing for financial success.

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