Is Age a Barrier to Good Writing?

At a time dominated by the cult of youth, does the age of a writer matter? It always seems that publishers are looking for the next bright young thing. I have seen it suggested that this is to ensure that they will get a return on an author likely to write several books.

Things are changing. We live in an ageing society, in which more people are living longer. It is likely that there will be more older writers in the future. In our book, The New Age of Ageing, we considered the effects of our ageing population, not just on the individual, but also on families, our communities, policy. In this post I explore on the effects on publishing.

Ageism in society

Writing about age means identifying and confronting assumptions about age. There are plenty of discriminatory practices in our society. We can start with how older people are usually seen: conservative; physically weak and declining; not interested in sex and not sexy; defined by death (all those bucket lists).

My posts reviewing fiction about older women has revealed a more nuanced set of characters, with some feisty older women (see Moon Tiger, and The Dark Flood Rises) and some respectful views of older people with Alzheimer’s (Elizabeth is Missing) as well as caricatures of the eccentric and declining.

But what about older writers? We can count on Martin Amis to say what many people think about older writers, quoted by Michele Hanson in the Guardian,

Octogenarian novelists ‘on the whole [are] no bloody good. You can see them disintegrate before your eyes as they move past 70’.

Let’s look at late starters and writers who write into old age.

Late starters

Late, in the publishing world, means after 40. The most famous late starter was Mary Wesley, whose first book for adults Jumping the Queue was published when she was 70 years old. She went on to publish nine more novels and a memoir.

Dinah Jefferies, author of the best seller The Tea Planter’s Wife, published her first novel was when she was over 60. People had informed her that she wouldn’t find a publisher because of her age. Three of her novels have now been published. She told Saga Magazine in February 2016,

I read time and again that you have to be under 60 to be able to succeed at writing. All it made me think was, “I’ll show you. I’m not having that”. (Saga Magazine February 2016)

Keeping on

The list of writers who kept on writing, or who are still writing, is long and distinguished. Michele Hanson referred to Ursula Le Guin, Fay Weldon and Ruth Rendall. I add Diana Athill, Cynthia Ozick, Mary Weslely, and Elizabeth Jane Howard. And there are more.

I recently reviewed a novel by Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs. The author was 84 when she published this her 17th novel.

Margaret Drabble published The Dark Flood Rises when she was 77. It is her 19th novel.

Penelope Lively wrote Moon Tiger when she was 54. She’s still publishing at the age of 83.

It’s not age, stoopid, it’s sex!

So it is not so much age that is a bar to getting published, especially if you have a distinguished career behind you. Gender is much more of a bar to getting books published, promoted and sold. Year on year the VIDA statistics reveal the failure of literary publications to review books by women, or to employ female reviewers. The Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction was begun to help draw attention to excellent books by women.

Thank you to my co-author Eileen for suggesting the topic of this post some time ago, while we were writing The New Age of Ageing.

Related posts

Women and Fiction, for more on this theme. (September 2015)

Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers? Interview with Anne Goodwin, author of Sugar and Snails. (December 2015)

There are reviews of 25 books in older women in fiction series on this blog.

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, Writing

7 Responses to Is Age a Barrier to Good Writing?

  1. Lovely post and I couldn’t agree more. I wrote a post a few years ago on Late Bloomers in Australia. We had/have a large group of wonderful writers who weren’t published until their 50s. They are among my favourite writers. One, Amy Witting, published two in her 80s before she died. If you’re interested the writers include Olga Masters and Elizabeth Jolley (both now dead).

    Then there are non-late bloomers who were or are still writing and being published in their 70s.

    So, I say phooey to those who say older people can’t write well! But I must say that those writers I mentioned in the top paragraph were published in the 1980s and 1990s mainly. I am seeing fewer older writers being published now – at least with first novels.

  2. Maybe we should be asking whether youth is a barrier to good writing? Just a thought…

  3. Eileen

    Very apt post for me today as I begin the third chapter of my first novel – started when I was 70. If I had to describe it I might say that it focuses on ‘the murkiness of human experience’ as Elizabeth Strout once said about her writing.
    PS The Portugese word for retirement is reformado – that brings joy to my heart.

  4. Eileen
    Keep going! We oldies have had all those years of reading, thinking, and learning about life and people – all that rich experience (not sure about reform!) I wrote my first novel in my early seventies, failed to get an agent but found a small independent publishing company. That novel is doing quite well and I have a second one coming out this year. Look forward to yours.

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