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ON BEING A MIDDLE-AGED, MID-LIST NOVELIST

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Posted on: 31 January 2011

 

Product Details    ON BEING A MIDDLE-AGED, MID-LIST NOVELIST
 
At a certain point in your career as a novelist, you have to come to terms with no longer being “young.” For novelists, youth seems to last, officially at least and according to Granta, until you are forty – but eventually, Anno Domini catches up with us all.
Personally, I’ve always been conscious of death and on the whole rather cheered by the thought that one day my troubles large or small will be over. What I’m not so happy about is not having done enough with my life. Next to those I revere, composers especially, none of us will ever do much – or indeed, suffer as much. But there are times when I feel that I’ve been serving out a sentence of some twenty years in order to look after my children and work and write, and that none of these has been done quite a single-mindedly or as satisfactorily as I’d wish. Not that I’m complaining: I count myself unbelievably lucky to have combined even two of these things . However, other women artists may understand when I say that it’s often felt like competing in a race in which you have a handicap.
About a decade ago, I looked up how old all the women novelists I most admired were when they published their breakthrough book - the book that either won them a big prize, or became a best-seller. I was quite depressed at the time, and wondered how long, if ever, I was going to have to wait and whether it was ever going to be worth while. (Usually, I feel that one must write for the love of the thing itself, but this requires a level of fortitude which isn’t easy to maintain.) Time and again, I found that they all hit their late 40s or mid-50s before this happened. The exception seemed to be gay women. The reason why was easy to guess: if you have children, your career tends to be eclipsed for a good decade and a half.
Children bring plenty of other things to a novelist's life, many of which are beneficial but the one thing that you can't get over is the loss of time and energy. There are only so many hours in the day. Even JS Bach, who crammed more compositions into one year of his life than most would manage in a lifetime, and who had twelve children, had somebody else to do the dishes. Without children, many people could write a novel a year, certainly a novel every two years. With them, you more or less double that. The whole books and babies issue was satirised by the French critic Roland Barthes, who completely failed to understand why French novelists featured in Marie Claire were photographed with both. I am not going to go into this vexed territory again, but I have been thinking a good deal this month about middle age, partly as a result of reading Jane Shilling's The Stranger in the Mirror, an affecting memoir of her own entrance into the condition of not being young.
Becoming invisible is actually quite an important thing if you are the kind of novelist who is above all interested in people, and I don’t mind it as much as some. It means you can, like Miss Marple, be overlooked as you overhear all kinds of interesting stuff; personally, I found it quite annoying and tiresome to be looked at as a young woman (unless it was by someone I wanted to pay attention to me.) However, not being young is currently disastrous for novelists, especially women novelists - much as it is for actors. Unless and until we get to the lofty eminence of our eighties and are once again deemed as interesting as Diana Athill, middle age is a period of about thirty years in which somehow, despite having a life-time of experience to draw upon, we are somehow not worth reading.
This is, I think, a relatively new problem. Up until the 1980s, it was expected that novelists would be people of some age and experience; in fact, I remember when I met Graham Greene as a mere strip of an eighteen-year-old and said (with a mixture of trepidation and callow eagerness) that I, too, wanted to write fiction, I was subjected to one of his withering put-downs. "What can you possibly have to write about?" he asked. "You haven't begun to live. Wait until you're at least forty."
Nowadays, I might well say the same thing myself to a teenager - but I'd be wrong. I think the young have a lot of experience to write about, much of which we tend to forget when older. I love the freshness of young writers, and the way they’re still so exposed to painful feelings; I love the mistakes they make, and the violent extremes of emotion. Adults are so often so nasty to the young that they forget, the young can be just as observant and as critical back.
However, in one sense Greene was right. As a young writer, or even a writer of thirty, you are unlikely to have the understanding of human nature, and the experience of the ironies of life to draw upon. Having reached the grand old age of fifty-one, I now see so much of life which is very like fiction – people who reappear after vanishing for decades, stories that are unexpectedly completed or enlarged, plot-lines that converge or diverge as death, decrepitude, divorce, inheritance and a host of other factors familiar from classic fiction come into play. In middle age, most of the unworthy impulses that might inspire a work of fiction have fallen away; I am no longer interested in heroes or heroines who are as dazzlingly attractive or accomplished as I once wished to be, or as rich, either. I am simply interested in people. I could live twice as long, and never get to the end of how interesting individual lives are to me, or how interesting the novel is as a form. (I am not interested in experiments in form because on the whole this has been done before, is just showing off, and not as interesting to re-read.) Furthermore, most if not all the contemporary novelists I most enjoy and admire - Linda Grant, AS Byatt, Rose Tremain, Lorrie Moore, Alison Lurie, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwen, William Boyd, Michael Arditti, Pat Ferguson and more - are middle-aged too. They have life under their belt. They have seen and experienced things that make their fiction wiser and deeper than a person under forty.
Yet it’s also very clear to me that publishers would far rather I were some stripling of twenty-five. Novelists now regularly get their teeth done (I am not going to mention Martin Amis, because his really were a medical necessity.) We all, if female, discuss plastic surgery with increasing urgency and interest, and every so often one or two disappear and return looking strangely fresher. Two novelists I know of have lost half their body weight by joining Lighter Life. One has had gastric surgery. Naturally, I’m not going to say who any of these people are – and nor do I mock them. Publishers are business people with stock to sell, and alas, it’s always easier to sell something with an attractive person behind it than not.
However – I return to the point I’ve made before. On the whole, good and great fiction is not written by beautiful people who feel successful. It’s written by the person who is most overlooked, all their life, and who understands things about the human condition which is very different from that of the experience of the twenty-five year old part-time model. Every author has a professional deformity – club feet, an uncomfortable religious inheritance, short stature, or incurable alcoholism, take your pick. Writers are always outsiders, and our nearest kindred isn’t someone in Hollywood but the bag-lady who rootles through dustbins muttering to herself.

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Comments

At 06:00:57 on 31 January 2011,  Harriet Smart wrote:

That is a superb piece! As a forty something female novelist I was nodding at every sentence. I would love to add something brilliant but you just knocked so many important nails on the head there, there seems to be nothing else to say. Feel very comforted and encouraged - thanks very much. I will go back to my invisibility and muttering now.

At 14:50:52 on 31 January 2011,  Amanda wrote:

Thanks Harriet and Molly, and welcome to my blog. So glad you enjoyed this and agree. Do pass it on...there are so many thousands of us either writing or trying to write and facing this.

At 06:57:23 on 31 January 2011,  danuta Kean wrote:

Brilliant piece! In part the rise of "youth" as the determining factor on which books get promoted or acquired, reflects the misuse of BookScan data, which is used by retailers to gauge whether a book is worth promoting. As with all statistics, their use often reflects prejudice rather than science (in this case the disturbing worship of youth as a virtue). Instead of looking at individual works, retailers quote an author's "previous track record" as a reason not to back a book. It makes it very hard for those with an established career to break out of the mid-list It also feeds on "fresh blood", young authors whose youth and looks appeal to lazy marketeers and a media incapable of digging out a fresh angle. The fact that they have no track record deals with the problem of retailers' neophilia. It also mean that bookshops are littered with authors whose' bright young thing careers burned out after their debut or encore failed to match the hype of their launch. It is a cynical literary culture that promotes such a mentality. It is also a shortsighted retail and publishing culture that uses data in such a simplistic and inappropriate way. And, dare I say it? It also explains why both large publishers and booksellers are struggling to survive and understand the market

At 08:10:17 on 31 January 2011,  Lucy Coats wrote:

A very timely post for me, Amanda, as I'm entering the last months of my 50th year. What you say about the way, as women writers, we have to juggle kids, writing and all the other 'stuff' is so very true--and you are right, there ARE only so many hours in the day to fit everything in. It is only now, as my children enter their late teens, that I don't feel guilty (or not very) at taking the time for me. Me meaning my writing, building my career as an author--all that. I have had 25+ children's books published in the last 19 years--but the writing has all had to be 'fitted in', and I've only written one (published) novel. Like you, I don't complain about having juggled writing and kids--and I too count myself lucky to have been able to do so--but now, for me, the luxury of having time to think, plan, schedule three full days when I can just damn well WRITE is like a kind of miracle. I now know how much I can achieve! What I don't know is whether those 'achievements' will get published--it's a nervous world for middle-aged mid-list writers at the moment! As for the invisible thing--I've always described myself as a person 'on the outside looking in'. I've felt invisible and overlooked all my life--and I like it that way in my everyday world. I eavesdrop unashamedly, and lurk around the edges of conversations on trains and buses and at parties, knowing that people rarely notice me gathering fuel for the literary fire. Being nearly 50 means I've just grown into myself! In the old matriarchal cultures, women 'of a certain age' were respected and revered--but this is now mostly not the case. Being overlooked as a writer because one isn't a 'bright young thing' is another thing altogether, and, I think, short-sighted in the extreme. I don't know how long publishers can go on cherry-picking 'debut' authors, building them up as the next big thing, and then, if the next book is seen as 'not quite as good', or lacking in Nielsen sales points, dropping them like a stone. Authors used to be 'built'--allowed a mistake or two in the interests of them learning their craft. These days, if you have one 'doubtful', it seems that there is no forgiveness, even if you are a good writer who might just have that bestseller brewing in the brain--after all there are lots and lots of hungry new would-be authors out there to pick from. Whatever the future holds though, I'm going to go on writing and weaving the fruits of age and experience into my books. Just see if I don't!

At 09:27:57 on 31 January 2011,  Nuala Ni Chonchuir wrote:

Brilliant, as usual. I blogged recently about mother-writers, so it's on my mind. I am a full time writer with 3 kids and I lead a very quiet life. All I want is more time to write but it's the hardest thing to get. Comfortingly, by Granta's standards I am now officially old (at 41) so I can stop trying to look nice and settle into my bag-lady phase. Your last line is a classic, Amanda!

At 10:09:18 on 31 January 2011,  Charlotte Howells wrote:

I haven't read Jane Shilling's book but I think the problem is true of middle-aged women generally, the invisibility issue in public life and being overlooked if no longer young and fresh. You would think writing fiction would be one of the few occupations where it really wouldn't matter but clearly the publicity machine, rather than the creative process, makes the same demands - Philippa Gregory's novel Zelda's Cut might offer one solution! As a middle aged woman myself I would love to read more fiction with leading characters that represent me and my peers and not just in a sad, missed opportunities kind of way, which is still fairly common but in a vibrant second lease of life vision. I would imagine that women in the age group form a significant majority of the reading public as well so the appeal should be to publishers in financial terms. I like the literary novels that take me different places but would also welcome some more lightweight stuff or thrillers with middle aged women in lead or action roles - some escapism and fantasy as well as critical thought. It has only just occurred to me how sexist fiction is - I always naively thought that it was one area where gender would not really be an issue but it seems in terms of prizes, advances, interviews etc that men still get the majority of air time and are deemed to have written "the great ..... whatever.... novel". It also seems to be that middle aged men attract young and attractive women in novels but rarely the reverse - despite many of my peers being in relationships with much younger men- Hollywood appears to have infected all our media not just the film industry. I recently posted a top 100 of my favourite books on Facebook and one of my friends commented that there seemed to be a lot of women on the list - it was just over 50% - it may not be Sky Sports but there are still gender biased attitudes out there and it would be good to see a mainstream publisher addressing it without resorting to women only shortlists or inferring we are a minority category. Good luck Amanda - I look forward to reading your ground breaking, seminal novel putting middle-aged women at the centre of the action!

At 13:05:53 on 31 January 2011,  KMLockwood wrote:

I aspire to be that bag lady. I mutter to myself along the beach and listen to folk on the bus. I write and hope that somehow in my fiftieth year wisdom will descend upon me and suffuse into the page. Thank you for the post, Amanda.

At 20:24:59 on 31 January 2011,  kittylynn wrote:

Wonderful thoughtful bittersweet piece. Though it is not only novelists who feel this way, but most of us fairly successful middle-aged mothers, who have some ambition, and somehow thought we would be even more celebrated by this point in life. Yet here we are - having devoted a lot of time and effort to establish careers and launch our children, yet we are not giving the keynote at Davos (Amy Chua is, by the way) and the most probable course is that our careers will plateau, while younger more glittery women make the "top under 40" to watch list. Ah life, ....

At 12:28:44 on 04 February 2011,  Amanda wrote:

I am going to look up these other posts - thanks again delvingeye - and personally, I believe that it doesn''t matter when you start writing. To be able to do it at all is always a battle; finding pleasure and satisfaction in it is a great reward.

Alas, there is a point further on the way where it all becomes more vexed, and that is when you are published. For some, this is an end in itself, and despite the ever-increasing volume of books now printed, it''s still very hard for perfectly good writers who would have had no difficulty in the past. I don''t understand why some are rejected and some not. It may be coincidence that so many are women of 40+, who previously had good publishers.

 

 

At 21:01:47 on 13 March 2011,  Nicole wrote:

Thank you so much for that lovely piece, and all the contributing comments. Not a published author, in my 49th year, I am finally free[r] to spend time learning & practicing the craft, but with so few mentors of my "age". I suppose Dorothy Sayers, J Pyms, Agatha Christie et al just thumbed their nose at any question of age. It is so difficult to even find a blogger to follow who was around before the end of the Cold War, and knows what the Cc: space is in an email page! Reading your blog, and all the contributions was so wonderful, and in words [or thereabouts] of CS Lewis "We read to know we are not alone" and its a nice feeling of companionship to read of like minds.

At 05:48:40 on 20 March 2011,  Katy Yocom wrote:

Thanks to all for these posts -- I was feeling discouraged and anxious this morning and it helps to read all of your thoughts. I found this blog by googling "good book for middle-aged woman wondering what it all means." I'm 44 and am revising my novel for the fifth time - hoping to get it published eventually (well, preferably sooner than later... but then what?). Lots of people who've commented mention writing and raising a family; in my case it's writing and working, but the issue is the same. Only so many hours in the day. I don't think it's coincidental that middle age is when we start looking around at our past (youth) and future (end of life) and start wondering just what it is we're building here -- what it is we're trying to accomplish in these years on earth. Think I'll check out "The Stranger in the Mirror." Amanda, thanks for this honest and thoughtful piece. It was just what I needed this morning.

At 05:13:33 on 03 February 2011,  Tania Hershman wrote:

This is a very interesting blog post, thank you, very thought-provoking for me, a writer passing 40, thrilled to have one book published and wondering what might happen next. And seems to me a great companion piece to this blog by Kirsty Logan, "This Modern Writer: Youth is All" (http://www.pankmagazine.com/pankblog/this-modern-writer/this-modern-writer-i-am-young-and-that-is-all/) in which she says: "I have to do everything now now now while I am young and shiny because that is all I have. I have my youth, I have my shininess, and that’s it. When I am older I will be just like everyone else, except not quite as good. And that makes me anxious, not only because I have to do everything now now now but also because I’m almost 27 and that’s not even that young. It’s not old, obviously, but it’s not young enough to be newsworthy."

At 06:36:49 on 31 January 2011,  Molly Campbell wrote:

This is wonderful. I started writing seriously at age 59. While I always loved writing, children, career and establishing our family financially took the first part of my adulthood. I now have the freedom to THINK, and to write about what I want to! Maturity gives me perspective in my writing that I think enriches it. I am not a novelist, but rather a columnist, but perhaps a book is percolating somewhere in my unconcious. Thanks for sharing this. molly

At 07:29:11 on 31 January 2011,  Leela Soma wrote:

Doris Lessing wrote from an early age and won the Nobel at 88. We writers write because we love writing, age does not matter but in this ever-increasing 'visual' world agents and publishers are jumping on the media bandwagon of pretty twenty somethings to sell the books. How shallow is the lit world? Is this the new dumbing down of literature?

At 11:30:46 on 31 January 2011,  Milla wrote:

I think that you are confusing greatness with the arbitrary caprice of fame. To me A Vicious Circle is as good a book as I've ever read and, believe me, I've read a hell of a lot. Other crap just gets the attention. Quite why it should matter what we look like behind the written word, I struggle to get. Which is not to say you're not attractive. Aaargh. I'll get me coat.

At 10:30:38 on 01 February 2011,  Amanda wrote:

I love all your comments! So glad there are so many witty "bag ladies" out there. Of course, it isn''t only a problem for women novelists, but for professional women and our sex generally. Sue is perfectly right, it''s better than the alternative.

If we''re lucky enough, and struggle on, there is comfort that at 70 you somehow become a National Treasure. If you have the energy to enjoy this, I imagine it''s quite fun. But Doris Lessing, whom I know slightly, was so old and debilitated that by the time she got the Nobel, she wasn''t well enough to go to Sweden.

At 03:53:37 on 02 February 2011,  Josa Young wrote:

O dear, the muttering! Yes, this is exactly how I feel about it. First published at 50. Am I on scrap heap now? It all builds to a nail biting anti climax.

At 05:11:14 on 03 February 2011,  Nasim Marie Jafry wrote:

I very much enjoyed your post, Amanda. Just want to say that it isn't only having children that deprives one of writing energy, being chronically ill does also. My autobiographical novel - a fictionalisation of my life with the illness known as ME/CFS - was published in 2008. I do not have children to care for but am simply not able to be on the treadmill - literally or metaphorically - pushing out another book. The novel took six years to write and a further two to find a publisher and I am insanely proud of it!

At 10:27:11 on 03 February 2011,  Delving Eye wrote:

Like Molly, one of your commenters, I began writing late, just before turning 50. Perhaps that is why I don't feel the angst of being a has-been. In fact, after contemplating the halfway mark, and feeling almost suicidal sadness at having pursued a life in business in order to make a living, instead of one in art, for which I'd shown some talent in my youth, I turned to writing at midlife. It seemed to offer the best of all possible options for my then position as a wife and mother of two teens, with an agoraphobic bent towards being a homebody. It's true, my first attempts at writing made me feel like slitting my wrists, so cringe-worthy were they. But I stuck at it and have produced some not bad pieces for local magazines and, not insignificantly, my own pleasure. I no longer cry into my pillow at my ineptitude, nor feel like opening a vein, unless it is to vent on paper. Any interested reader of this small victory is free to read my account, "How To Write Like A.S. Byatt," on my blog: http://delvingeye.com/?p=7

At 08:42:43 on 31 January 2011,  Lucy Abelson wrote:

So encouraging to read something written from the heart.

At 05:09:52 on 01 February 2011,  Claire King wrote:

What a great post! As a debut novelist inching towards middle age (my first novel will launch when I'm 41) it's very encouraging to hear you putting this into words. I share your sentiments!

At 05:58:55 on 03 February 2011,  Roisin wrote:

Thank you ladies. You have no idea, Amanda, how timely your comments are. I celebrate my 43rd birthday in a few days' time, and of course that's a wonderful thing - what's the alternative, etc. My youngest asked me this morning if I am happy to have three children. I said, "Very happy, darling," before adding after a milisecond (but an inspired one), "you're the best thing that ever happened to me." So how does one reconcile that entirely truthful sentiment with the reality of one's burning ambition; with the knowledge that there are, as you say, a finite number of hours in the day and energy in your body. But I must be becoming more serene as I am less consumed by jealousy as I view the success of my female peers who have loads of support...I don't envy male peers as the playing field is so uneven anyway. I will say, however, that the lack of time and energy has sharpened my hunger considerably, which has helped my motivation no end. I remember a female, highly-educated friend asking me where I considered myself to be, on a scale of one to ten, in terms of my ambition. I laughed and said "One!" (I had illustrated two books at that stage, but not to my satisfaction or any particular success.) She was shocked - as if a "housewife" should be delighted with a few crumbs of success. Sorry if this a bit rambling - hard to concentrate with ill children everwhere!

At 07:18:59 on 31 January 2011,  Sue Guiney wrote:

An excellent and important piece. I started writing and publishing when I was in my Kate 40's with my 1st novel published in my early 50's. But now that I am in my mid50's I am still going strong, publishing more and more. But of all the things in this life I Can't control, my age and people's response to it is the one I have most easily let go of. I don't feel 55. I don't feel any particular age. I just live my life and write my books the best I can, with as much truth and energy I can muster. What comes of it all is not up to me. Luckily, I am finding more and more people who appreciate my work despite my advancing age. As I always say about getting older...well, it's better than the alternative.

At 10:10:11 on 31 January 2011,  Charlotte Howells wrote:

Aargh! Have just realised the origin of the word seminal!

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