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.
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.’