By Dennis Abrams
There’s Granta’s list of the Most Promising Authors Under 40. There’s The Guardian’s 20 Writers Under 40 to Watch. There’s The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40. And I’m sure there are others. Lots and lots of others.
When did forty become the cut-off age for discussing “promising” debut authors?
Penelope Fitzgerald, after all, was nearly 58 years old when she published her first non-fiction work, a biography of the pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones, and a veritably ancient 61 when her first novel, The Golden Child was published in 1977.
Of course two years later she also won the Booker for Offshore. So maybe, just maybe, is it possible that “older” debut authors have something worth saying to a society seemingly obsessed with youth?
Forty-eight year old British novelist Claire Fuller, whose debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days, won the Desmond Elliot Award this year, says “yes.” And in The Guardian, she wrote about a new writers group: the Prime Writers: “a group of about 50 authors who were over 40 when their debut novel was published. The group spans many genres, publishers and locations; some of us have agents, others don’t; what links us is that many journalists, event organizers and book prize administrators think we’re getting on a bit.”
As she says:
“Of course it’s a terrific achievement for writers to get their novels published whatever their birth certificate says, and we acknowledge that our group treads a fine line between being supportive and being ageist ourselves with our over-40 entry criterion. And other publishing prejudices shouldn’t be forgotten, including gender and race – but someone has to set the record straight about age.
“Not only are the Prime Writers shouting about each other’s successes on Twitter and via our website, we’ve also set up a private Facebook page. Here, we can moan about the one-star review that’s just been posted on Amazon, discuss promotional tactics, and have a little cry about the photograph that our publisher released where we (OK, I) look like a battleaxe – all the time knowing that there are people who will listen and understand, will offer some virtual tissues and tell me that I look fine. We’ve recently met in real life as well and managed to have a group photo without too many of us hiding behind the tall ones at the back. I was happy to share a quick check with one of my fellow Prime Writers that neither of us had spinach in our teeth before we smiled at the camera. I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing that at 25, or maybe even 39. But 48? It’s fine”
She notes that there obviously a lot of work to be done. Recently, a member of the group announced that he had been asked to attend an event at a bookstore with a panel of first-time authors. Unfortunately though, he wasn’t there to be part of the panel, which was strictly for “young debut authors.” Because of his “advanced age” (he was in his early 50s), he would be chairing the event.
So, she concludes:
“It’s not only event organizers we want to re-educate – it’s also the many older writers who think their time has passed. If they read some of the Prime Writers’ tweets, our public Facebook messages or our website; if they can see a photograph of a debut author who is over 40, wrinkles and all, and feel inspired to keep going, then I’ll be happy with what we’ve done.
“So enough with the “young.” Let’s drop it and change the equation to: book + debut = any age.”
Taking things a step further, some have even proposed creating a “genre” specifically aimed at older readers and one written by older writers. Dubbed “Boomer Lit,” this genre focuses on the nearly 80 million baby boomers who have the time to read and write and buy books. You can read more about it here on Publishing Perspectives.