I wanted to dismiss the recent essay dissing aging heroines in the New York Times Book Review even though it was written by none other than Fay Weldon, one of my favorite novelists.
Titled “Writer of a Certain Age,” Fay says, in a nutshell, that when she teaches creative writing, she tells her students flat out that, if they make the mistake of writing a book with a main character in her 50s, “she will find it hard to get a publisher. Her agent—and these days, it will almost always be a woman—will discourage her and suggest the protagonist’s age be taken down 20, even 30 years.”
I would have crumpled up that newspaper and tossed it into the fireplace except for one sad fact: my agent agrees with Fay. As I talked over my novel-in-progress for Penguin with him a couple of weeks ago, I suggested starting the book from the point of view of a main female character who is close to sixty years old.
“Oh, I don’t think you’d better do that,” my agent warned. “Publishers don’t like older characters. You’d better start with the younger woman’s point of view.”
Now, bear in mind that I adore my agent. He’s one of the wisest and nicest men I’ve ever met in my life and I trust him completely. Still, I was nonplussed. Why shouldn’t my book start with the point of view of a woman in her fifties?
Two of my favorite novels, Stewart O’Nan’s EMILY ALONE and Elizabeth Strout’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE, feature older women as protagonists, and both of those characters are wonderfully complicated women with fierce natures who are facing the universal human conflicts of grief, loss, love, mortality. In fact, those books inspired me to create one of the main characters in THE WISHING HILL, 70 year-old Claire, who falls in love and is forced to begin living life in the present again after decades of mourning her past mistakes. It was liberating to write from the point of view of a woman that age who was, despite all of her past mistakes, ready to take new risks and move forward, embracing the changes in her life.
Yet, statistics support my agent’s cautionary stance. When it comes to book buying, it’s true that more women buy books than men, but it’s also true that most book buyers are younger than 45, according to Bowker statistics. So the wisdom in publishing is that we novelists have to give those readers younger characters they can relate to, maybe.
But why wouldn’t readers of all ages relate to older characters, as long as those characters were falling in love, chasing bad guys, or killing zombies? I think we’re selling our readers short if we don’t give them characters who have lived full lives, yet are ready to take on new challenges. Isn’t that what we all hope to do in our own lives?
So I’m going to keep writing books with female characters of all ages. The older women are going to be just as brave, blood-thirsty, and lusty as their younger sisters and daughters, because in my experience, that’s how women are.
Linda Robinson says
Publishers are about money. Studio executives are about money. As long as we allow men and women to tell us that a strong female lead in a film only works when there is a man around, and lead female characters in books have to be 30, we’ll see the same results. Stop buying the other stuff. Money talks.
Good, practical advice, Linda!
Maddie Dawson says
This made my heart stop, because I, too, have written about women who are a little bit older, and I also was told that it would be difficult to get the books accepted. Happily, that didn’t happen. But it’s an interesting topic. The thing is, just as you pointed out, women who have a few decades of mileage on them do lots and lots of interesting things, have amazing senses of humor–and get into just as many scrapes as they did when they were younger. I think the story is the main thing–and glad to see that you are holding fast to your vision with your characters, too, Holly! Thanks for this post.
Becca Lostinbooks says
One of my favorite books is Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey’s A Woman of Independent Means and she goes through the whole of her life through the letters in the book. I agree that at 34 I have a hard time relating to older protagonists, but mostly because of their circumstances of marriage and kids and mortgages, not because of their age.
Greta van der Rol says
Huh? So we can’t have women like Hellen Mirren, Cate Blanchett, Judy Dench? Anybody else remember the LONG RUNNING repeated ad nauseum TV show “As Time Goes By?” What is wrong with these people (the publishers)? Women with life experience are, to my mind, much more interesting than fresh young things just out of college.