Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers?

We know about the bias against women in publishing and reviewing. My recent writing has made me think about the toxic combination of sexism and ageism. I have been wondering if the effects of that combination are evident in the book world, making it harder for older women to be published and noticed. The media, at any rate, acts surprised if people over 65 do anything, it seems.

225 foggie_grandmother_knits_glasgow

Surprised at older writers?

The press uses the idea that it’s surprising that older writers even exist. Here’s one headline:

Grandmother lands book deal for debut novel aged 82 (Guardian June 2010)

A grammatical point has to be made: the misplacing ‘aged 82’ suggests the novel is that old. The sub chose to use the word ‘grandmother’ as a euphemism for ‘surprisingly old woman’. The grandmother reference is gratuitous, except that it conjures up the image of – what? A quavering shawl-wrapped dependent knitter of limited mental capacity. But – guess what – this 82 year old person writes books. (btw ‘pensioner’ is used in the same way. Watch out for it.) The emphasis in the article is on the writer’s age and gender.

Here’s another headline.

In defence of the older debut (Guardian Review July 2015)

OK, this one is a little more promising. It turns out to be about people publishing their first novel when they have passed 40. 40? I ask you. More than 50 writers have formed a support group called Prime Writers. It suggests that they have found age-prejudice even before they are 40.

The press likes to draw on the idea of inactive, less competent older persons, especially women. Are they reflecting the attitudes of the publishing business? I decided to ask a blog-friend, Anne Goodwin of Annethology, about her experiences as an older woman writer. She has recently published her first novel, Sugar and Snails.

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An older female writer’s experience

Here are the Q&A.

Congratulations on having recently published Sugar and Snails. What difficulties did you have in getting your novel published? Are you able to identify any issues that relate to sexism, or ageism or both?

Thank you, Caroline, I’m really pleased to have published my first novel. I sent out dozens of submissions before I found my publisher and it’s impossible to say whether or not the multiple rejections were due to sexism or ageism, but it didn’t feel like that to me. There are so many subtle (and, I’m sure, often unconscious) factors which influence an agent or a publisher’s decision whether or not to pass on a submission, the prejudices that exist throughout society must play a part. It could be that my novel was turned down because the main character is a forty-five-year-old woman, but I think the main anxiety was that it didn’t fit so easily into any obvious marketing slot.

We know from VIDA’s statistics that women’s fiction receives much less coverage in the literary press (in the UK as well as in the US): fewer reviews of their books, fewer reviewers. Where has your book been reviewed, and did any refer to your age or gender?

I’m guessing that women’s fiction gets fewer reviewers etc because of a perceived lack of “authority”, but small independent presses are at a similar disadvantage, so I wasn’t expecting to be reviewed in the broadsheets. My reviews have come primarily from book bloggers and a few small magazines, who seem to be a fairly egalitarian lot. I don’t recall any references to my age or gender, but it would be hard to imagine how a reviewer could have raised this in a way that was relevant to the novel, even though gender is one of the main themes.

Do you have any antidotes to the difficulties for women, and perhaps older women, in getting their work published and noticed?

I think it’s the same for writers at any age: find some allies; work to your strengths; keep asking yourself if there’s anything you’d rather be doing (and if there is, get out of this crazy business).

What do you see as the advantages, benefits, good things about being an older female writer, if any?

The situation might be very different for a female writer who’s been working at the keyboard all her adult life and sees her prospects and earnings diminishing as she gets older, but for a woman like me embarking on fiction as a second career after early retirement, the benefits are manifold:

  • rich life experience means you’re never short of ideas

  • if you’re writing from painful emotions, there’s a better chance these will now be processed sufficiently so as not to contaminate the writing

  • a stronger sense of your own values and priorities and less of a sense of having to prove yourself (although ask me on another day and I might tell you something different)

  • (not for everyone, I know, but) fewer competing demands on your time

  • closer connection to potential readers (aren’t middle-aged/older women the group most likely to read fiction)

Any reaction to what Martin Amis said 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’.

Michele Hanson referred to Ursula Le Guin, Fay Weldon and Ruth Rendall. I might add Diana Athill, Cynthia Ozick, Mary Wellesely, and Elizabeth Jane Howard (isn’t she something to do with Martin Amis??). Any comments? Are you aware of other older women writers?

I’m not terribly interested in what Martin Amis has to say about much, really, and I’m too small fry to enter his radar. And it’s always rather foolish to make sweeping generalisations. However, I have been disappointed at times with the work of some older well-established writers, but I see that as less about age per se than the fact that they’ve been practising this very strange profession for half a century and might well have run out of steam, or, because anything with their name on it will sell, they aren’t being pushed hard enough by their publishers and editors.

The world of fiction writing and publishing seems to be very young. I have come across press comment about how surprising it is for novelists to achieve a first novel at 40. In your lovely phrase elderly prima-authorista. They even have a support group – Prime Writers: about 50 authors over 40 when their debut novel was published. And Huffington Post ran a feature on 10 women authors over 40 in August this year. What do you make of all of this?

Interestingly, my biggest supporters in the publishing world have been young women (an agent’s assistant who was very enthusiastic about my novel but couldn’t persuade her more experienced colleagues to take it on, and my publisher who has been wonderful to work with). Despite my grey hair and my post on being an elderly prima-authorista, I actually see myself as fairly youthful relative to how old I thought I might be by the time I got published, having assumed I’d put my writing to one side until I retired (and ended up retiring earlier than expected). While I was shocked that the Prime Writers thought forty was old, I think gathering together under some banner is a good marketing strategy, and age is one of many possible ways of defining a group.

Do you have anything else you would like to add about older women writers?

I think it’s great that you’re running this series [older women in fiction], Caroline, and I’m honoured to be invited to be part of it, but the biggest barrier for me in getting my books to readers is the low status of small presses in the publishing industry (I suppose it’s capitalism rather than ageism or sexism).

Thank you Anne, for your answers and for your perceptive comments.

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Case for discrimination not proven?

So the evidence for sexism-ageism in publishing is not overwhelming. I guess that the infamous invisibility of older women might help avoid judgements based on age, in publishing at any rate. I am constantly impressed by the dominance of the professional skill and all round competence of the many young women we have met in our publishing experience. We wrote a blogpost in their honour after the publication of our last non-fiction book, called Published today: what our editors did for us (July 2014).

And thank you Anne, for reminding us what we all know from our experiences that older women are as competent, active, wise and creative as anyone else. Age alone does not rob us of that.

But you might have a different view or experiences to counter this conclusion.


Sugar and Snails by Anne Goodwin, published in 2015 by Inspired Quill Publishing. 332pp

See also Women and Fiction, a post from September 2015 about discrimination against women novelists.

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Older women in fiction, Publishing our book, Writing

24 Responses to Is there Discrimination against Older Women Writers?

  1. A very interesting article…but it did make me feel a little uneasy at being proud of writing “at my age”.

    • Oh, Connie, be proud at any age! You sound like a good advert for starting something new.

    • Caroline

      Hi Connie, thanks for stopping by. But like Anne I think you should feel proud of writing at any age. It’s bloody hard.
      I am concerned that some women get dismissed because they are women and older. That’s just not right.

  2. Eileen

    An excellent interview and comments. And now I have another book to read. Congratulations Anne Goodwin and good luck. Great cover picture.

    • Thanks, Eileen, and indeed I’ve been really pleased with the cover of my novel. Interestingly, in the first draft the designer showed us the woman in the picture was far too young, and even this one is a little too glamorous for my character. Hope you enjoy the novel.

      • Caroline

        Thanks Anne for these comments about your cover. Covers seem really hard to get right. I do like yours. Although I think the title tells you even more. Could almost be clever! Eileen and Marianne and I are really struggling at the moment with titles and publishers

    • Caroline

      Hi Eileen, I think you would enjoy Sugar and Spice. I didn’t say enough about it in the blog, but the protagonist is only in her early 40s, or thereabouts. So the author was the thing.

      • Yes, Diana is forty-five in the contemporary strand of the novel … and you are not the only one to have renamed it Sugar and Spice, Caroline 😉

        • Caroline

          Many apologies. I think I must have stopped thinking towards the end of that thought. Of course Sugar and Snails. Still think it’s a good title for your novel! Caroline

          • No worries, Caroline, you’re not the first to do this. It’s a bit like when I was tweeting about Black Lake but calling it Black Lace, which suggests a totally different kind of novel. Yeah, and I do like my title, though often surprised that it doesn’t seem to give the game away.

  3. Eileen

    I’m really looking forward to reading it as I enjoy your replies to Caroline’s posts so much – so insightful and they often have a fascinating angle

  4. This came at an interesting time for me. I was with a group of women writers last year for a panel discussion called “The Silver Linings Playbook” — about publishing as a woman “of a certain age.” The room was full. There are lots of us, it turns out. Anne, your comments suggest that your experience is similar to mine but there were women in that room — especially the film writers — who saw ageism and sexism on a daily basis and felt their combined sting acutely. On the other hand, one of the debut novelists in there who was in her mid-50s, said that her agent and editor were both younger than her and the editor was a man. She was grateful for their energy and enthusiasm for her work. A mixed bag, like everything. I do find that the times I’ve wanted to write about my perspective as a debut novelist at nearly 60, I’ve hesitated. My husband says I make more of it than anyone else does but I feel some hesitancy about “putting it out there” and claiming all the advantages you list in your answers to Caroline’s questions. I’ll think differently about that now.

    • Caroline

      Thanks so much for adding these comments. I imagine that the more visible older women writers get more ageism-sexism that those of us hidden behind our computer screens
      I like Anne’s list of advantages too.
      I’m sure other people would join with me in saying go for it and write that novel or put it out there. Hope to hear more of your writing soon.
      Best wishes

    • Yes, it is a mixed bag, and I do think it’s important to acknowledge that wedge of ageism and sexism that surround, even if it hasn’t impacted on us directly.
      I was interested that your panel discussion was called The Silver Linings Playbook, as apparently there is a novel and film of that name – a librarian recommended it to me recently, but I’ve just read the plot on Wikipedia and can’t make much sense of it.
      By the way, I had a quick look at your website and was very impressed.
      Wishing you all the best with your launch next month.

  5. Hi Caroline and Anne, It’s lovely to see you both together here. It is an interesting discussion. Unfortunately I think sexism and ageism are rather pervasive, as are many other isms so we don’t always notice them until they move towards the extreme. I’m pleased, Anne, that you did not feel its effects too dramatically with the publication of your book. As you say capitalism has the larger army.
    I was interested in the comment by Martin Amis. Like Anne, I care little for any remarks he may make. I wonder why he felt it appropriate to discuss older women writers as opposed to older men. I guess he has to preserve his, rather questionable at best, reputation for when he is of greater years.

    • Caroline

      Hi Norah, I enjoyed Anne’s answers. I agree with you that her experience may not have indicated sexism-ageism, but we live in a world where both isms dominate.
      In defence of Martin Amis, not that he needs my help, I think his comments were about men as well as women. Michele Hanson was making a point about older writers. But I think Martin Amis enjoys making provocative statements. I love the way Anne dealt with him.

      • I must add also that I’ve enjoyed some of Martin Amis’s writing, although agree with you Caroline that he does like to be provocative. I also think that the writing life is so different for big-name authors in general we could indeed be different species. Of course, we can speak only from our own position, so I don’t particularly blame him for saying what he did, I think it’s up to us to choose what to make of it.
        Caroline, I think you need to feature another older woman writer who has experienced – or at least is not unconscious of – sexism and ageism that, as you say Norah, is rife throughout society.

        • Caroline

          Hi Anne,
          yes I need to explore further. I’ve said ‘not proven’ but I have my suspicions. Currently writing about increased longevity and its effects, including the toxic mix of ageism and sexism in many areas. I might try a small survey in a few months perhaps. Any suiggestions for older women writers to contact?

  6. Carol Hedges

    As in writing so in life….we are discriminated against in the media generally, a. as women and b. as older women. Not a problem…we just keep on fighting. I ‘use’ my age (66) to my advantage: I changed genre and now write a totally different type of book. And have a ‘gran’ bkog. Exploit it, ladies..and show the discriminators that they are wrong!

    • Caroline

      Hi Carol. Thanks for this commen. I agree that we should not let ageism-sexism stop us doing anything. And we must show up the descrimination where it occurs.
      I am currently getting to the end of a book about the effects of increased longevity, including the residual ageism that is everywhere. We consider how the media in particular love to ignore older women, or label them as problems in different ways.
      Hey ho. We are from the generation who know how to work against that.
      I am interested in how you use your age (?in your writing?). Can you tell us more?

    • Good point, Carol, in an area where it’s generally a disadvantage it’s good to be able to exploit it. Like Caroline, I’d be interested to know more.

  7. Eileen

    Anne – just to let you know your new book arrived yesterday. I look forward to reading it. Best wishes,

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