As you see, I did not want to put the buzzwords into the title of this post because if I had, there’s a chance you wouldn’t be reading this very sentence. Some of the buzzwords are:
aging • failing • waiting • loneliness • Loss • ending • dying • DEATH
Grim stuff? Perhaps, but it’s our stuff. Everyone’s stuff. Everyone ages. Some of us won’t age as much as we wish we could, some of us will age more than we’re happy about. But we will age; we’ll approach death. Writers will write about the experience, good or bad; many readers will read about it, though sometimes reluctantly.
- There’s a kind of fiction that’s incidentally about aging and death, that is, the aging simply happens along with the story. Memory or flashback is often the frame.
- There’s another kind of fiction that’s about coping—with aging, being older or old, illness, imminent death, the aftermath of loss. Some of that fiction is from the point of view of the older person, some is from the POVs of children, friends, or caregivers. It’s fiction like any other, and it can be very helpful to readers.
- A lot of aging-related nonfiction is, of course, factual information offered by experts, about the process, the physical and emotional issues, etc.
- Memoirs and creative nonfiction written in old or older age frequently describe the experience of aging, being old, living old, and knowing you’re going to die soon. They’re about personal experience, setting the record straight, filling in the blanks, sharing knowledge or wisdom, being angry or sad, funny or resigned, ready—or not ready.
Readers generally choose age-appropriate or stage-appropriate literature. When you’re in your twenties, in school, in love, in early parenthood, etc., you’re less likely to want to read an account of life in the assisted-living facility. Yet if you’re in your forties and coping with elderly parents, this may be your literature of choice. At my stage, I’m not much interested in meet-cute romances or the trials of motherhood, but tales of aging can depress me.
The problem is that a great deal of amazing writing gets done by older writers and some of it is about aging and some of it gets short shrift. Only a very unusual thirty-year-old editor is going to take an old man’s memoirs seriously (unless he’s an ex-president) or an old woman’s short stories seriously (unless she’s a Nobel Prize winner).
May Sarton, poet, novelist, and memoirist, wrote eloquently about aging. “Memoirist” is not quite the right term for her, but one can’t call her a “journalist” despite the fact that she wrote elegant journals about her life. For example, Journal of a Solitude is—if you allow yourself to be absorbed by this poetic yet down-to-earth account—simply a wonderful journey with Sarton. And perhaps that’s the best word association: her journals are about her journey.
Sarton, who died in 1995, overcame several major illnesses and the loss of many close friends and lovers to continue writing journals almost to the end of her life. The journals are sometimes marred by her narcissism, yet they remain astonishing views into the process of aging. I single her out because her journals are favorites of mine, but she is only one of many writers who have had the courage, insight, energy, wit, and humor to tackle waning lives as only writers can—by writing through them.
There are many choices for reading in this topic; the following is quite a short list, compared to what’s available. Which is to say that despite the reluctance of some editors and some readers, good books about difficult topics do get published.
Tales from Rhapsody Home: Or, What They Don’t Tell You About Senior Living, John Gould
Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner
The Diary of a Good Neighbor, Doris Lessing (NB: also called The Diary of Jane Somers #1)
Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
Memento Mori, Muriel Spark
Quartet in Autumn, Barbara Pym
All Passion Spent, Vita Sackville-West
Krapp’s Last Tape and Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett
The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
Signs and Symbols, Vladimir Nabokov
Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively
As We Are Now, May Sarton
Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Saul Bellow
The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
My Mother’s Island, Marnie Mueller
Patrimony, Philip Roth
And here are a few links to very good lists of books—fiction and nonfiction—about aging:
I would like to add two more words to the discussion: William Trevor. Not that beloved Mr. Trevor, who is now eighty-six, is a writer particularly concerned with work about old age. No, I mention him because he is still writing, he is still brilliant, and any reader or writer of fiction who hasn’t read him should search him out ASAP.
FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast
Crawford Doyle Booksellers, New York, NY
Snow Goose Bookstore, Stanwood, WA
Women & Children First, Chicago, IL