Ten Over 80

Ward Six is proud to announce its TEN OVER 80: WRITERS TO GO BACK AND READ list. All the following writers will turn 80 or more this year, and all have been kicking ass for longer than we have been alive:

JOHN BARTH: I read The End of the Road the summer I was 18. It made me understand how fully bizarre being an adult was going to be. Hurray! In the late 60’s he wrote an article called “The Literature of Exhaustion,” which kind of predicted the end of the novel. But then he found himself continuing to write novels. His latest book of fiction, The Development, a collection of linked stories, came out in 2008.

BEVERLY CLEARY: She is 94 and still writing! I can’t decide if I like the Ralph the Mouse books or the Ramona ones better.

EVAN S. CONNELL: This guy is tragically under-read. Mrs. Bridge was republished earlier this year; it and Mr. Bridge are sad and funny character sketches. Also wonderful is The Connoisseur and his several collections of essays, including The White Lantern and A Long Desire.

J. P. DONLEAVY: Also under-read! And another author I read when I was a teenager. Donleavy is a little like an Irish-American Richard Brautigan, only better. Or maybe a bit like Barthelme. I keep his story collection Meet My Maker the Mad Molecule on my desk, and am still constantly surprised by what I find when I open it. Here’s the first paragraph of “The Mad Molecule”:

I woke on that terrible day and mixed the shredded apple in my raw porridge oats and poured on the cream. I know what’s good for me. I put on the shoes with the golfer’s soles, walked silently down the stairs and out into a great blue sky and along the river’s warm sweet smell.

I wish more writers these days dared to be so weird.

PAULA FOX: I read Desperate Characters in the mid-nineties because Jonathan Franzen wrote about finding it at Yaddo and how it’s a perfect short novel. It is. She’s had an interesting life and has written two memoirs. Also, the daughter she gave up for adoption gave birth to Courtney Love.

WILLIAM GASS: In the Heart of the Heart of the Country is a collection of five strange and linguistically brilliant short stories. Here’s a bit from “Icicles”:

Glick was holding a pen in his teeth like a pirate. It was a green pen and it made Fender think: pickle. Glick nodded briefly at Fender who was feeling his way now through an office unnaturally dark and full of lurking obstacles. Goodness but it’s bright outside, he said, his voice false as a wig, which both surprised and annoyed him, since it was a small thing to have said, and he’d certainly meant it. The typewriter was repeating a letter — likely x.

In the Heart of the Heart of the Country is the only thing I’ve read of his, but now I think I need to read the rest of his smallish oeuvre.

HARPER LEE: Well, you probably don’t need to go back and read her, because she has to be the most thoroughly read writer in America. But I wanted to mention her, because she’s still alive, and, unless she’s been secretly storing away manuscripts, she’s the Patron Saint of Blocked Writers. She wrote our motto: “It’s better to be silent than to be a fool.” God bless her.

ELMORE LEONARD: Did you know he’s going to be 85 this year? I didn’t. But I’m not going to say anything about him; JRL wrote about him here.

DORIS LESSING: I admit that The Golden Notebook was a bit much for me, but I loved The Summer Before the Dark, which is about a housewife who leaves her family and falls in with a group of strange younger people. Also, I liked The Fifth Child, which is about a family who gives birth to a kind of throw-back Neander-child. When I first read it, it was horrifying; having had a couple of boys myself since then, the kid in the book doesn’t seem so bad. I love it that when was told she won the Nobel Prize, she apparently said, “Oh, Christ… I couldn’t care less.”

ALISON LURIE: Alison is my personal idol. Her books are all funny, sharp-eyed, and slightly wicked. She’s hugely productive and writes every day. I want to be her.

Some of my favorites of hers are: The War Between the Tates, The Nowhere City, Real People, Truth and Consequences, and Familiar Spirits, her memoir about her friendship with David Jackson and James Merrill and their experimentation with the Ouija board.


Rhian Ellis and J. Robert Lennon write the Ward Six blog at wardsix.blogspot.com. More from this author →