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.
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.
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.
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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