This tweet came from a conversation on my writing group, where a YA author who’d published a few books some time ago was finding difficulty getting traction today. They were wondering if their age might have something to do with it, and this tweet came out of that.
Me and my big mouth.
This is a hard subject to write about for a lot of reasons. First and foremost, I’m not sure you can compare the life cycle of any two books, even by the same author. Publishing is a weird, disconnected, convoluted set of paths and ditches and brick walls and black holes. My experience may have nothing to do with your experience. My experience with my third book was nothing like my experience with my first. (Well, okay, that’s probably typical.) Each individual piece of what happened to me is common; the particular configuration of those events is unique. This makes it hard to extrapolate anything from my “career” that’s useful to anyone else.
Secondly, while yeah, I think age plays into it, it’s so much smaller a thing than gender, or race, or sexual identity. Publishing exists in the same culture we all do, and suffers from the same storied variety of social goods and ills. I have no doubt being a woman was a bigger thing than my age, and I can’t say with any certainty if either issue substantively affected the fate of my work.
I will say that I don’t think my age influenced me getting published in the first place. I might be wrong, and I’m open to being argued with. But while I think there are demographic issues around finding representation and selling work–it’s pretty well documented that people with non-European/non-white-sounding names can run into problems even getting read in the first place–I don’t think age is one to fret over. Unless it’s specifically relevant to your work, nobody’s going to ask how old you are. (Nobody asked me, and while it was pretty obvious if you read years of posts on my blog, I really doubt the first thing editors did when my sub landed in their inbox was think “I shall now spend hours reading five years’ worth of rando blogging before I look at this MS.”)
But that’s subbing. Marketing and publicity…well. That’s a whole other thing.
The thing is, when you publish, you get shoved into the public eye, even if it’s only a little. (Stieg Larsson, everybody’s favorite example of Why Authors Don’t Really Have To Do Their Own PR, has had his life dissected and strewn across the internet, all long after his death.) And that’s going to mean interacting with people, even if it’s only a publicist. And that’s going to mean people are going to find out how old you are, and they’ll have a reaction to that.
Have people had a reaction to my age? It’s not possible to be sure. But…yeah, I think so.
It’s hard to say about general social situations, because I’ve never been great with those, even when I was younger. There’s certainly a deer-in-the-headlights look I get from others sometimes, but they may just be handling their own social anxiety. I did run into one Famous Author who seemed to take a vehement dislike to me immediately upon introduction, but I can’t say whether or not that had anything to do with my age. (Maybe they hated my shoes. Who knows?)
But there was this time I volunteered for a thing, and I’m pretty sure my age played into why they turned me down.
And it stung. This was a local event, one I’d attended for years. They’d always been very supportive of local authors and the newly published. And maybe their rejection had nothing to do with me, and they were just overwhelmed that year.
It still stung. And I don’t volunteer anymore.
As I said, it’s a small thing. Had I been wildly successful, I suspect my age wouldn’t have mattered, although it would certainly have been discussed. We’ve all seen those “Don’t be discouraged!” messages from published authors who reveal that their first novel didn’t come out until they were *gasp* 40.
And I mean, yeah, don’t be discouraged. I was 51 when my first book came out. That said, I also hadn’t been subbing every word I wrote since I was 20. I queried the third book I ever finished in my life (the first being fanfic, the second being a trunked NaNo novel). I had a lot of beginner’s luck.
Which is the other side of it.
Language, unlike skills we don’t generally use every day, develops as we age. For writers, the more writing you do, the better you’ll get, almost always. There was one lovely review of my first book that mentioned something about my self-assured writing. Which was nice to hear, but I couldn’t help thinking that after writing for 46 years I had better be self-assured or I had no business keeping at it.
It’s true there are social skills that help in publishing. Being an extrovert is a help, or at least being able to fake it. Being photogenic is helpful, which is in itself a bit of ageism, at least where your average woman is concerned. Hugely helpful? I doubt it. There are plenty of bestselling authors that have low or invisible public profiles. There are plenty of very visible authors who are frequently quoted but who get more attention for opinion articles than fiction. Being visibly older, in and of itself, isn’t a big deal.
But it’s something. It’s friction. Maybe not friction that matters, but friction nonetheless. And you, Fellow Older Author: if you haven’t felt it yet, you will.
P.S. One age-related thing that comes up fairly often is my stance on writing workshops/degrees. There are people who come close to insisting that certificates and/or degrees are absolutely necessary for fiction writers. That’s rubbish. There’s no doubt those programs can be helpful, and they’ll be more helpful for some people than others. There’s also no doubt they can be terrific fun (I’d’ve loved it). But necessary? NOPE. And I think I feel that way because I am self-assured, which is because I’ve been writing since I was five years old.
It’s also because it strikes me as a tone-deaf sort of classism, but that’s another essay (that can probably be found somewhere in my years of rando blogging). Regardless, you learn writing by writing. (And reading.) Workshop? MFA? Ten minute breaks during your day job? Doesn’t matter. Write.