Where are our “coming of older age” novels?
Our society celebrates “coming of age” novels, from Huckleberry Finn to The Catcher in the Rye. Newer books fit into this genre, too, from The Fault in Our Stars to blockbuster series like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games.
But how many novels can you name whose central characters are retired or aging?
You might be able to think of some after awhile if you’re a dedicated reader ike me. But they are not so obvious and, as best I can tell, not recognized as a genre even though more than 46 million Americans are now over the age of 65, a total projected to more than double by 2060. I looked online and found lists here, here, here and here, all filled with examples of great books with older characters, but they still don’t feel like a “thing” to me.
The recent death of Philip Roth got me thinking about this. (Another great writer, Tom Wolfe, also died. It was a bad week.) Roth famously explored the challenges of older age. When I learned of his passing, I had just finished The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a powerful story about an African American teenager who sees her friend killed by police. I loved her book but it’s worth noting its central character was a young person, just as in The Goldfinch and some of the other books I’ve read while serving in the Peace Corps.
My list just topped 100 and, out of curiousity, I went back to see how many of the novels had older protagonists. There were a few, such as Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo and A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler. But most of the books dealing with older age were nonfiction, such as two good ones I read recently: Michael Kinsley’s Old Age: A Beginnner’s Guide, about his experience with Parkinson’s Disease, and Marc Freedman’s Prime Time, about people creating new careers and identities after leaving the conventional work force. Many nonfiction books for older readers focus on financial planning and other practical questions. Those books are often suggested even when you search online for fiction about older people, as shown below.
The percentage of American adults who read books has remained relatively unchanged in the past few years, according to a 2016 report from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. The median American reads four books a year. Print books continue to be more popular than audiobooks or e-books, which are more popular among younger readers, who read slightly more books than older Americans.
Younger adults are more likely to read for work or school while adults of all ages are equally likely to read for pleasure or to keep up with current events. In other words, the readers are still there, even as independent bookstores struggle to survive. So why aren’t more novelists focusing on “the coming of older age” — and why aren’t these books treasured as a genre in the same way we celebrate stories about people at the other end of the age span?
Sure, there are classics such as Shakespeare’s King Lear or Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, and more recent characters such as Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman or John Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. But their ubiquity or cultural impact are small compared to, say, Harry Potter. (I don’t think Disney World is considering a thrill ride yet about Medicare, with parts A, B, C and D.)
I wish more great novels featured characters my age. I don’t understand why they don’t. Obviously, the books assigned in our high schools are more likely to feature characters and stories of interest to younger readers. But how about for the majority of readers who are older than that — people like me? Why don’t our bookstores have shelves devoted to these audiences on topics other than how to apply for Social Security or deal with dementia?
Maybe it has to do with the economics of the book industry, but books don’t sell advertising like television shows, which want younger viewers to buy their beer and cars. Maybe older characters are harder to fit into genre fiction, like mysteries or romance novels. Maybe they’re not taken seriously by younger Americans, a thought that occurred to me this past week while reading Dan Lyon’s Disrupted, his hilarious but unsettling account of working at a startup company in his mid-50s.
Maybe it’s something else. I guess I’m too old to figure it out myself.