Tag Archives: Bonnie Garmus

Older Women writers – in demand or not?

Are older women writers in demand or are they ignored by the publishing industry? I read two articles recently which appear to offer opposite points of view on the subject of older women writers. One point of view is optimistic: 

… experts say: older writers are now at a premium – with radical, edgy women aged into their 80s particularly sought after. [Guardian 25.2.23]

The other suggests that the same old ageism/sexism is still operating against older women writers as it always has.

            … it seems many older women writers feel herded towards retirement before they’ve even got going. [Mslexia Dec/Jan/Feb 2022/23] 

I note that in the first quotation, the experts were from the perspective of publishers and agents. The second quotation reports the experience of the writers. Some of the difference I am questioning may arise from these contrasting perspectives. But which is it – older women writers are in demand or they are not?

Older Women Writers are in Demand

To support the argument that older women, especially women in their 80s, are the writers most sought after by publishers, Amelia Hill, writing in the Guardian, assembles the following evidence. First the publishers themselves are keen to publish work by older writers, apparently. It began with the small, independent presses, but now they are all at it.

“The publishing world is working hard to normalise and celebrate the vast diversity of women over 45 and to value their collected, distilled wisdom, their lifetime of reading and radicalism that is not possible for younger writers.”

This is the view of Lisa Highton, an agent and former publisher, quoted in the article.

Elizabeth Strout

Second, she lists several notable older writers, such as Bonnie Garmus, whose debut novel Lessons in Chemistry has been such a success. Others are Miranda Cowley Heller, Jo Browning Wroe, Louise Kennedy, Joanna Quinn Nikki May and Shelley Read.

Ann Tyler

And why are publishers taking on these books? The reason is simple – they are following the money.

“The vast majority of books are bought by women aged 45 and above. They’re a hugely important demographic and increasingly want to see themselves represented in books.” [Lisa Highton]

Women Writers are overlooked by Publishers

Mslexia has the strapline: the magazine for women who write. In an article from Mslexia (Dec/Jan/Feb 2022/23) by Debbie Taylor called The Time of our Lives, she explores the issues. I find it strange that Amelia Hill makes no reference to this article when she wrote the piece reported above. 

In her article Debbie Taylor describes how attitudes to age are defeating women writers, for example many literary prizes are age limited, which mitigates against older women because they often start their careers later and are more likely to have interrupted careers. No-one would want to quarrel with strategies to encourage young writers, but it is hard for older writers to gain success and exposure with so few literary awards open to them.

Barred from a raft of high-status awards, patronised or parodied in fiction and rendered literally invisible of book covers, no wonder women writers feel marginalised and wary of submitting their work. 

She quotes a survey where 50% of 1700 writers believed that ageism was a factor in how they were treated by agents and editors and 21% had experienced ageism. With those views in mind she went on to challenge three myths about older writers:

  • Their work is conventional and old-fashioned,
  • They have shorter writing careers,
  • Only old people want to read books by (or about) old people.

Although highly critical of Martin Amis and publishing practice that discriminates against older people, Debbie Taylor notices that there is some movement.

The doors are ajar for older writers. It’s up to us to ram our trainers, Doc Martens and stilettos into the gaps and push them open. True, ageism is an ongoing issue in publishing, but it’s not insurmountable – and let’s face it. This is a tough business whatever your age.

Helpfully for those wishing to do the necessary work, the article also listed sources, pressure groups and awards in a side bar. Bookword blog headed that list, and the article also featured a list of ten top titles from the older women in fiction list on this blog. This blog, and the series Older Women in Fiction, is mostly concerned with characters in novels and short stories. But it also promotes women writers, and older women writers.

Older Women Writers – in demand or not?

I think money, sometimes called the grey pound, will decide this issue. Succeeding generations of older women are better educated, get better jobs, have more disposable incomes, and live longer, all factors that will support buying books. We know they are the backbone of the book-buying readers. Publishers, agents, editors will not want to go against their own commercial interests.

So there may be sexism and ageism in publishing, but there are signs that this is changing. There is less reason to discriminate against older women writers than ever, especially as the quality of their writing matches that of younger writers. 

Related posts and articles

Things are definitely opening up’: the rise of older female writers by Amelia Hill in the Guardian; 25thFebruary 2023.

The Time of our Lives by Debbie Taylor, in Mslexia, Dec/Jan/February 2022/23. You can find the Mslexia website here.

Let’s have more Older Women Writers from Bookword February 2020, in which I reported on the opinions of some older women writers.

The Bookword page about the series older women in fiction can be found here. You can find more than 100 novels and collections of shorter fiction which feature older women. There are links to more than 60 books that I have reviewed on Bookword Blog.

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Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

This was a good read for a recent journey, all that waiting in airport lounges, on trains and planes, and on buses. I was thoroughly absorbed in this spikey novel, which I bought at the airport. It’s a paperback edition, but why do they make airport publications so hefty, by the way? 

Lessons in Chemistry

Elizabeth Zott is a heroine for our times; in particular, she won’t put up with being fobbed off as a mere woman. But Elizabeth Zott, the heroine of this fast-paced novel, lives in the US in the 1950s and 1960s. She has worked hard to achieve a master’s degree in chemistry, but her career keeps getting knocked back by men. At best they don’t believe that women can have jobs in science, or that they only want to find a clever husband. At worst they undermine their confidence and steal their research and sexually assault them when they object.

Although blocked in her career by this kind of behaviour, Elizabeth does find a job in a research company in California. It is the same company as the brilliant Calvin Evans. Their first meeting is not good. He assumes she is a secretary, rather than a lab worker. But although he has assumed wrongly, he is able to see her talents as a scientist when she reveals them. 

Elizabeth and Calvin fall in love and set up house together (shocking). Circumstances force her to bring up their child on her own (shocking). Her work is stolen, but she persists in bringing up her daughter, and in pursuing her chemistry projects. The odds are very much against her, and she is dismissed and shut out of employment in chemistry for a while.

Then, because she is resourceful and determined, and because she has great presence, she lands a job presenting a cooking programme on late afternoon television. Her particular slant is to introduce chemistry to the women viewers, by treating them as intelligent and hard-working people. In her programme she encourages women to take charge of their lives. Chemistry is about change. The underlying message of her afternoon shows becomes – it starts now and with you Her programme becomes very popular. 

The story is told in multiple timeframes, beginning with the episode in which the tv station producer persuades her to take on the presenter’s role. The story is told to reveal the multiple ways in which women in the ‘50s and ’60s experienced the patriarchal attitudes of society at that time. There are numerous episodes that highlight this, mostly through Elizabeth’s refusal to accept the limitations she meets.

This means that we visit some cherished ideas from US post-war culture: about the role of women, marriage, illegitimacy, women’s education, defining identity through genetic families, lying, treatment of animals, child-rearing, religion, research funding and celebrity. She demonstrates that women are powerful, capable of change, not second to men.

There are many great characters in Lessons in Chemistry: Madeline, Elizabeth’s precocious daughter; Six-Thirty, her dog; Phil Lebensmal, the tv channel’s boss, and just about every scientist Elizabeth comes across.

Pacey, sparky and with a mystery at its heart, it was just the thing to entertain me for the duration of my journey. This is the first novel by Bonnie Garmus to be published. Her attractive dry wit will no doubt appeal again when she publishes her second novel. I am not surprised that it is already reported that there are plans to adapt it for the screen, even before the paperback is out in the UK (except at airports)

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, published in 2022, by Doubleday. 391pp

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