Expiration Date on Writers?

- by Barbara Bretton

on sale 11/4

on sale 11/4

I’m 58.

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.

11 comments

  1. The age of an author doesn’t matter to me as long as the write a good story.
    I’ve been reading romance for over 55 years—so your seem young to me.

  2. Estella, thanks! Age certainly didn’t stop Victoria Holt or Phyllis A. Whitney.

  3. Barbara, excellent topic! Holt and Whitney were popular prior to the internet, in a slower time when there weren’t fifty blue million books released a year and the competition from video games and the web hadn’t eroded individual book sales. Now authors have to fight for their tiny share of the pie, and anything can be used against us. Too old, too young, too PC, too non-PC, not photogenic…. The list of excuses stretches into eternity.

    Personally, I think we all ought to disguise ourselves as vampires.

  4. Age is not a problem for me either, you have to start sometime, so if you’re younger why would that be bad either?

  5. The people who made those comments are just stupid. Age doesn’t matter–story does!

  6. I assume the “too old” attitude isn’t applied to men, since John Updike, Philip Roth, Paul Theroux, and other geezers aren’t held to that standard. Quite the opposite, yes? They’re considered Grand Old Men.

    Age wasn’t/isn’t a problem for Iris Murdoch, Barbara Pym, Agatha Christie, Maxine Hong Kingston. A.S. Byatt, Margaret Drabble –

    It’s too bad that you didn’t have the financial and artistic security at the time to answer, “I’m sorry you’re a dumbass.”

    Disguising yourself as a vampire is a great idea, by the way: aren’t they both ageless and seductive?

  7. Oops. Looks like half the post is missing. I’ll ask the tech masters to look into it. There’s more after, “I’m glad you’re not old.”

  8. What’s missing from the post:

    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.

  9. I have to say that when I see a face my age, I am happy. So maybe in our youth obsessed society being younger matters, but I really think what makes it matter is that the younger you are the dumber and cheaper you will work. I finished CASTING SPELLS and I hope you write more in this town, it was wonderful. I finished the last page with a satisfied sigh. I hope you write a few heroines, even secondary ones who are my age, which is by the way, 57.

  10. I think you beautiful and vibrant and will continue to be so at age 98! And your writing will progress accordingly to all the new experiences too. I hope I’m lucky enough to go part of the journey along with you.

    That being said, I don’t care what my authors look like or what their age is. It’s about the words. My love for my favorite authors comes from passages that moved me, one liners I never forgot and quote often, characters that haunt me… Age, to me, is only relevant in what it helps bring to a story — perspective. But it certainly doesn’t hinder the process or the writer.

    We have lived in a society that seems to fight to the death to look youthful and I don’t understand why. Instead of the elusive youthful beauty they seek, these same people mutilate themselves into grotesque masks that mock their intentions.

  11. Too old to be an author? Hmm. Sounds like an interesting plot idea, but in real life – who worries about such trivia?