Thursday, 25 June 2009

STRICTLY AGEIST?



In the same week that choreographer Arlene Phillips (aged 66) is rumoured to have been given the chop from Strictly Come Dancing and replaced by a former contestant (aged 30), Alan Yentob’s Imagine followed The Company of Elders, a dance company whose members’ ages ranged from 61 to 85, as they rehearsed their latest contemporary performance at Sadlers Wells.

Part of me thinks it’s terrific that an hour of prime-time television has been devoted to older dancers. Another part feels uncomfortable, just as it did during the Susan Boyle fiasco. Is this a celebration of talent, or does it lend more weight to the underlying cultural belief that older people are unlikely to be successful in their chosen field?

There’s a great democracy about writing. Few can tell, from reading a book, how old the author actually is. You can write a novel at the age of 14. You can write a novel at the age of 84. Whether that same democracy applies to publishing a novel is another matter.

‘Mary Wesley!’ I hear you cry.

Indeed. After 35 years of writing, Wesley’s first novel was published when she was 70, and she went on to write another fourteen in the next ten years. But Mary Wesley – like Susan Boyle and The Company of Elders – is the exception to the rule, the one who became famous as much for her advanced age as for her prose (though her prose is magnificent).

A similar prejudice applies to subject-matter. Writing about older people is a bit of a no-no, I’ve been told. In a society obsessed with youth and with fending off any sign of ageing, who wants to read about it? Too depressing, is the received wisdom. Too downbeat. Even though the majority of the book-buying public are middle-aged or over.

Prejudice, it seems, extends in both directions. A well-known writer of women’s fiction was recently quoted as saying that no-one should write a novel under the age of 35 because people younger than this haven’t been ‘knocked about’ enough by life. Is suffering a prerequisite for writing stories that people love to read? And aren’t many people ‘knocked about’ quite effectively by life before the age of 35?

However, most ‘youngsters’ have the prospect of a long writing life ahead of them, whereas anyone over the age of, say, 60, may be considered a bit of a liability in the longevity department. We all know that publishers rely on an author producing several books before they begin to make a profit. Who can blame a publisher or agent for being wary of taking on an older writer?

And yet, time is a friend to writers. Unlike a dancer, a writer can continue to flex her writing muscles into ripe old age, can practise and improve her skills as long as her mind, imagination and perseverence continue to function. A lifetime's experience, together with the wisdom gleaned along the way, are far too precious to be written off.

Can you be too old – or too young – to be an author?

14 comments:

graywave said...

Certainly one way to get knocked about by life is to try to get yourself published. I think I age a year for every agent rejection and two for every publisher who finds my books don't suit their current needs. I'd better get a contract soon or I'll be too knocked about to celebrate.

The Write Woman said...

Very interesting post, Susie - and I'm happy to tell you I bucked the trend. After writing as a hobby since I was a child, I had my first short story published in my 40s, and my first novel (which was about a woman approaching her 50th birthday!) when I was 53. I'm now nearly 60 and my eighth novel comes out next week. I tend to look in awe upon the writers of good books who are fresh from university - at their age, I personally would not have had enough to 'say' - but they're obviously far more talented than me!
I agree that writing, happily, is one career you can never get too old for, as long as you don't completely lose your marbles, your eyesight or your ability to sit upright at the computer. (Come to think of it, there are ways around that anyway!).
But unfortunately I also agree that there is a belief, in publishing, that a 'fresh young talent' is a more marketable proposition than a middle-aged author. I've never experienced any personal prejudice or ageism: but the fact that I'm now writing under a pseudonym, 'posing' as a much younger author - at the suggestion of my publisher - and sorry, I can't say any more about that! - speaks for itself.
It's also true that publishers seem to believe middle-aged heroines aren't as popular as younger ones. Despite the fact that my first book - with the middle-aged heroine - was my best selling (and I still get fan mail about it - including a recent one from a 21-year-old) - I was asked afterwards to write stories with younger heroines. I don't agree with this but I'd afraid I'd rather have a book deal than write books about middle-aged heroines that never get published!
I'd love to change the world - but I'm a bit too busy trying to earn a crust (and I mean a crust!) from my writing.

Julie P said...

Hi! At least you're trying, though, Graywave, that's got to count for something.

I think society as a whole needs to have a re-think on the age issue. The 'young' seem to forget that they too will become old one day. Is how 'older' people treated now how they want to be treated when they get 'old?' I think not.

But, of course, it will never happen to them will it?! Says she of a grand 'old' age of 38! What goes around comes around, though. So I think society, including publishers and agents should take heed. It's not the age of the author that is important; it's the quality of the writing and whether the book will sell.

In this age where 'youth' is championed and pretty young authors are all the rage as well as pretty young celebs, I appreciate how 'older' authors feel. But if we 'older' authors give up trying because we think we're too old then we're not going to get any where. We should keep writing and get published and take our place alongside the 'younger' models and make people see that 'older writers have just as much merit in the world of publishing as the older ones.

The revolution starts here!

Julie xx

Derek Thompson said...

Morning all. I remember when I was a young and poor poet - poor in ability that is - and people told me that my work had no depth. Real writing, that comes from the soul, takes time and experience. Whatever the genre. I saw on the BBC site today that a 29 yr old's first novel has been published and it took him 7 years to write it. Mixed messages. So we work on what we can control - the writing, the motivation and the pitching!

Rebecca Connell said...

Interesting topic, Susie. As a relatively young author, published at 29, I do feel slightly defined by my age at the moment. I think it gives me an advantage in some ways, but equally I'm aware that many people will think that my writing is naive and relatively undeveloped.

I suppose I can only say that I do believe experience comes with age - obviously - but that young writers can have depth too, and are often able to project themselves out of their own personal range of experience. I hope that my writing gets better and better over time, as I expect we all do, but equally, I don't believe that this will necessarily be the case...

CarolineG said...

Great post, Susie. Writewoman, you are an inspiration to us all!

I had a thing about being published before I turned 40... and then failed to do it. I realised it was silly to impose deadlines on myself after that. It didn;t serve any purpose [although I'd like to get there before 70!]

Bernadette said...

It would be nice if the product could be left to speak for itself. We all have different life experiences, different levels of talent and different things we want to say. How old you are may well make a difference to how you write - but compared with how you may write at a different age, not compared with someone else!

(Note the use of the word different numerous times above - I was going to change it to make the post more writerly, but then decided it was used that many times for a reason!)

And although I have some sympathy with publishers wanting to make long term investments we can all dry up (or get run over by buses!) at any age.

Maybe publishers should do a reader survey on how the age of the author affects their buying. I'd happily go round Waterstone's with a clipboard. "Excuse me, did you put that book down because the author looked a bit old?" I can't say I've ever done that myself.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Fabulous replies, everyone!
Write Woman, well done for 'bucking the trend'. It's kind of scary that you are being asked to write under a pseudonym, given that you are an established author, and that, for example, Katie Fforde is in her fifties and writes about young women in their twenties.
Hmm, much food for thought...

Samantha Tonge said...

Great post and some very inspiring answers - Write Woman i love your pragmatic attitude.

I think youth has its own benefits to writing - a naive (in a good way) enthusiasm, less jaded perhaps than the rest of us, less contrived - and of course, practically speaking, more time and energy, perhaps, without mortgage worries and kids waking you during the night.

The age of the author of the books i like doesn't interest me in the slightest, i have to say.

Very interesting, Susie!

debutnovelist said...

"We should keep writing and get published and take our place alongside the 'younger' models and make people see that 'older writers have just as much merit in the world of publishing as the older ones."
As someone who only began writing for real on reaching 'a certain age', I'll drink to that. It's very sad that we oldies have to pretend to be younger, but I think novels about older people are gradually gaining credence. (Reading in Bed, A Spot of Bother, Miss Garnett's Angel, to name but a few.)
Damn, why have I just written one about a teenager?
But thanks for another post on a topic close to my heart!
AliB

Sheila Cornelius said...

I surely regret thinking forty years ago that I'd have a teaching career and write novels when I retired. As others have said, there's no age bar to writing fiction, only to getting published. Still, they don't ask for your birth certificate, do they? So I'm wondering have much age subtraction I can get away with. Fifteen, twenty years?

Thanks for this thought-provoking post.

Fionnuala Kearney said...

Great post Susie and such fab answers that I'm off to read them all again!

Susannah Rickards said...

Great post Susie, (sorry I'm coming to it late.)

I'd always thought this was a profession where age didn't matter or if it did, we could fake it. So your post was sobering. Let's have a group shaving off of a few years shall we? ;)

Far more depressing (since I'd have no qualms at all about lying about my age if it made a difference) is your point that characters over fifty are not deemed worthy of carrying a novel. Immediately exceptions jump to mind - Barb Covett in Notes on a Scandal or Ann Cleeves' delightful overweight detective, Vera Stanhope, but they are exceptions.

The women I teach CW to, and many of the readers in book groups round here complain there's no literature that reflects the capabilities of their generation. The next big thing, once some publisher chances their arm on it - Silver Lit?

Susie Nott-Bower said...

A publisher DID try to set up an imprint for older women - it is called Transita, and I noticed that they had a stand in Waterstones, Picadilly which looked enticing. However, they got a lot of flack from the publishing world for doing so, and are now 'not accepting submissions' and seem to have gone very quiet. A shame.