Why not an older novelist?

Several months ago, I submitted a new novel by one of my bestselling clients to a house that hadn’t previously published him and to an editor who was a great fan of his.  The editor loved the novel – he should have, it is brilliant – but when he presented it to his colleagues, they turned it down.  A couple of weeks later, I had lunch with one of this editor’s co-workers who told me the real reason the novel was turned down was that my client was too old.  I was absolutely dumbfounded.

Then I read this piece in Publishers Weekly and I realized that in this day and age, when it’s all about youth, older authors are sometimes discriminated against simply because of age.

How incredibly stupid is that?  These writers have not only honed their skills over many years, they also have so much more life experience to draw upon in their writing.  Older novelists, I find, have the skill and patience to create stories with depth and well drawn characters.  While there are many brilliant young novelists, we should not discount the contributions of our literary “elder statesmen and –women.”

So I wonder, what you think about all of this?  Have you read any interesting well written fiction lately by someone who is, say, over fifty or sixty?

Oh, and about that client of mine – the one I spoke about at the beginning of this blog?  I sold his novel to a much better publisher than the one who had claimed he was too old. We have great expectations that the novel is going to be a huge success.

30 Responses to Why not an older novelist?

  1. Um… I don’t know how old the novelists I read are. Age isn’t even remotely part of the equation of whether I pick up a book or not.

    Now, I will say that there are long running series I gave up reading, not because the author was old and out of touch, but because the omniscient pov, common when the series started but not now, bugs me.

  2. Catherine Whitney says:

    Toni Morrison was 56 when she published Beloved.
    Sue Monk Kidd was 54 when she published The Secret Life of Bees.
    Annie Proulx was 57 when she published The Shipping News.
    Laura Ingalls Wilder was 65 when she published Little House on the Prairie.
    Alex Haley was 55 when he published Roots.
    And on and on. Toni Morrison, by the way, is now 80, and about to publish her tenth book, Home.

  3. Juan Gaddis says:

    Wow, being 54 later this month and still working on my first novel I certainly find this disconcerting but I remember reading a blog post earlier this year titled, “Can 50 be the new 30?”

    There are many authors who penned their first novel after the age of 50 and it gave as an example the author Norman McClean who published “A River Runs Through It” — his first book. I may be mistaken but I think there is even a literary prize for an author who publishes their first book age 50 and older.

    At any rate, I’m glad things worked out well for your client.

  4. Ron McLarty must have been somewhere well on the north side of 50 when he published the mega bestseller The Memory of Running. What a crazy reason to turn down money! House prestige! Press!

    Before I started writing books, I was an avid reader with little to no awareness of what went into making them so I was a typical customer. I had NO idea what age the authors were and if the book flap featured a photo, a distinguished looking person only added to my awe of the magic of books. I can’t get over how crazy the story in this post is!

  5. Not to mention Jon Clinch of FINN fame and we could all go on and on with more names. Who needs movie deals and bestsellers? We need the dewy face of youth?? Really??!!

  6. Oliver Yeh says:

    Keep the editor, toss the house.

  7. While I enjoy being able to read several books by a favourite author, that doesn’t mean I don’t also enjoy well written singletons. The current trend to offer publishing deals only to career novelists seems counterproductive, and when based on age rather than quality of work, I would suggest it’s also discriminatory. (Isn’t that illegal?) Kudos to the publisher who saw potential in your client’s book and wasn’t deterred by age. I hope it’s a winner.

  8. Now on the dark side of 60 and working on my second novel, it never fails to intrigue me regarding age discrimination in publishing. I’ve had an agent tell me that he would never represent a “retired person” because the best and most productive years were in the past. I have to say that my years honing my career in something else other than writing were definitely productive but not always creative. Since beginning my writing career, I’ve never felt so alive and creative, as if I’ve finally been released from the bindings. I refuse to be trapped into labels of “previously unpublished” or “retired”. I truly believe that the best years are yet to come.

  9. Peter J. Fusco says:

    I believe Mario Puzo was 49 when he wrote “The Godfather,” and 76 when he wrote “The Last Don.” So, I’m not sure who’s making the decisions at the publishing houses, but were I them, I’d be letting Jane.

  10. Catherine Whitney says:

    The current NYT fiction bestseller list:

    1. Janet Evanovich, 68
    2. Stephen King, 64
    3. James Patterson, 64
    4. John Grisham, 56
    5. Sue Grafton, 71
    6. Michael Crichton, deceased, would be 69
    7. Nicholas Sparks, 46
    8. David Baldacci, 61
    9, Clive Cussler, 80
    10. Glenn Beck, 47

    While it’s true that these authors established themselves at younger ages, their rankings show that age has not diminished their abilities or popularity.

  11. Catherine Whitney says:

    And while I’m at it, here are the current NYT nonfiction top ten bestsellers:

    1. Walter Isaacson, 59
    2. Bill O’Reilly, 62
    3. Glenn Beck, 47
    4. Laura Hillenbrand, 44
    5. Chris Matthews, 66
    6. Peter Schweizer, 47
    7. Bill Clinton, 65
    8. Diane Keaton, 65
    9. Regis Philbin, 80
    10. Robert K. Massie, 82

  12. Diana says:

    From this Baby-Boomer Book-Buying Reader’s perspective, it is really really stupid. Baby boomers are the largest demographic group in the US. Most of our children are now grown and on their own, so we now have money to spend on things like books and the time to read.

    And what are the publishers offering us? Young adult protagonists. Yeah, how entertaining do you think it is to watch a stupid teenager do stupid things and figure out life when one has already raised one or more stupid teenagers and watched in frustration as they did stupid things? Not entertaining at all.

    I wouldn’t mind reading a 50 something grandparent type going out and having adventures and fun in the world. Unfortunately no one is writing or publishing those books or if they are I haven’t been able to find them.

    The publisher who finally realizes that there is a huge demographic with lots of time and money on their hands and starts publishing novels that baby boomers want to read is going to sell a lot of books.

  13. Kim says:

    Thanks for this post, Jane. It adds to the frustration that I struggle with–how do publishers make decisions and how much is it really about readers and what they want to read? This seems like a foolish and short-sighted approach. I believe there needs to be a range of good fiction from all age groups targeting all groups of readers within those age groups.

    • Kim says:

      Oh, and congratulations to your author who succeeded in spite of the prejudice. I know you’d rather not say who it is, but I’d buy his/her book especially if I knew the circumstances of the author’s triumph over rejection.

  14. I like Diana’s demographic argument. The population is getting older on average which suggests the age of the reading public is getting older as well. And there’s really something to be said about mature content when it’s truly “mature,” and not simply rated that way for gratuitous violence, vulgarity, or otherwise pandering to the lowest common denominator. Hollywood has given up most of the year toward chasing the youth market with bigger and noisier special effects-driven drek while the networks have sold their souls to reality TV, leaving basic cable (and HBO and Showtime) the places to go for something that doesn’t insult your intelligence. How sad to think that the industry supposedly known for intelligent content is going down this already well-trod road to mediocrity.

  15. Emily says:

    Ditto — I’n in agreement regarding the demographics of our aging population. And I love the long list of authors and their age — kudos to Catherine.

  16. Julie says:

    Too old! What difference does it make with age when it comes to writing — or in any job for that matter! I enjoyed the PW article.

    I read an article about Walter Mosely in WD. He didn’t start writing until he was 34. Okay, maybe that’s not over 50, but he’s 59 now. He’s also published more than 34 books. And age isn’t stopping him. He’s continuing to write and sell extremely popular books.

    As of recently, I’ve seen it publicized that a writer is in their 20s or even younger. I think it’s great that someone so young can have their work published. But age shouldn’t matter. Why are we as a society so focused on youth? I believe the older you are the more life experience you have.

    Sure, a young person might have had an experience that affected them in such a way that they can channel that into their writing, but it doesn’t matter to me as a reader if they are 16 or 86. I also agree that an older person has had time to hone their craft. Age should definitely be valued. I’ve read a couple of books by authors in their 20s. The books are stellar, but my enjoyment and opinion of them has nothing to do with age, but the story. Isn’t that what should matter…the story?

  17. Janice Nolting says:

    It is a common belief that when you get old, you somehow lose contact with the medium generation, the young. And therefore you’re work is not only irrevalant but non-commercial. We live in a young world, everything in our society is geared towards the youth, and unfortunately this is the very thing that makes their stories so superficial; so lacking in depth, and artistic creation. I am proud to be an elderly writer even though I realize the risk I’m taking in writing more depthal then any of these young editors can comprehend. And I will continue to write from my life stories, of which there are many, until I get one of my novels published, or else expire through the process.

  18. Judith caldwell says:

    Would somebody please send all these comments (and the blog posting) to every agent and publishing house? As a new writer over 65, I can not imagine writing the book I just finished when I was twenty-five. BTW, it’s a time-slip about mitochondrial DNA, and time travel. Its protagonist is a very smart woman in her late thirties. Will all these things disqualify me?

  19. Joanna Hickson says:

    When I was a child I wanted to be the youngest published novelist in the world – I failed. Now I’m a “pensioner” I could aim to be the oldest published novelist in the world but judging by your post and the lists of NYT top-selling authors and ages I’d probably fail in that as well!

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