- by Barbara Bretton
Clearly age isn’t a hot button issue for me but according to some of my writer friends it should be. They claim I would be better off confessing to serial murders than confessing my age in a public forum. They say I’ll regret it, that my career will shrivel up and die the second readers and editors discover I’m no longer the thirty-two year old I was when I published my first book.
Don’t bother doing the math. Unless I sold my first book when I was five and married while still in utero, there pretty much has to be an AARP card hidden away somewhere on my person.
Like I said, I’m 58 and I don’t care who knows it. However even I have to admit the case against full disclosure might be more compelling than I would have thought.
I’ve always believed that one of the very best things about being a writer was that age didn’t matter. You could be fourteen or forty or (bless Phyllis A. Whitney’s keyboard) one hundred and four and as long as you could string words together in an entertaining fashion, you could continue working.
But is it true? Maybe not. I was at a book signing about five or six years ago, minding my own business while I waited for a friend. (Okay, so maybe I wasn’t exactly minding my own business but since when is eavesdropping a crime?) Two women, both about my age, were standing in line to pay for some books inscribed by the very well-known mystery writer signing books on the other side of the store.
“She’s so old,” one of the women said about the best-selling author. “I wish I didn’t know that.”
And I wish I hadn’t heard it.
Long ago and far away I was a thirty-two year old wide-eyed new author awaiting the publication of my first book. I was at the Romantic Times Book Lover’s conference where the Harlequin American line was being launched with great fanfare. Excitement was high. One of the first VIPs I met was an important reviewer who glanced at my name tag, shook my hand, then said, “Boy, am I glad you’re not old.”
I laughed at the comment but clearly I never forgot it. Were romance authors supposed to reflect their heroines? (At thirty-two, it wasn’t much a stretch. At 58, it is.) Or more disturbingly: did she believe romance authors were supposed to go quietly into that good night of “whatever happened to” oblivion after a certain age? I wish I’d asked her exactly what she meant.
Does there come a time when a writer should just stay home and write and leave the public appearances to younger authors? The aging process hasn’t kept (the wonderful, fabulous, seventy-something) Robert B. Parker from getting out there and meeting readers but I now have two female writer/friends who claim their conference/book signing days are over because they’re afraid their sixty-something faces aren’t what their readers expect and that it will negatively impact sales.
Is there an unconscious bias in the industry (the romance industry, in particular) against first-time authors with the aforementioned AARP cards? If a publisher is looking to launch an author’s career, are they more likely to buy the highly promotable thirty year old with her whole future ahead of her or a sixty year old who is well past the halfway point?
Is there a market for books that reflect the lives of fifty- and sixty-something men and women or are we Botoxing our fiction as well as our faces?
I don’t know the answers but this time at least I’m asking the questions.