We can’t help getting older. Must women characters stay forever young?

Thank goodness I’m not one of Fay Weldon‘s writing students.

This past week, the New York Times carried an opinion piece by the British author, well-know for controversial and contrarian statements. In “Writer of a Certain Age,” Weldon, well into a certain age herself, paints a grim picture of a publishing industry that celebrates the young and attractive, both at the keyboard and on the page, while ignoring aging women writers and characters:

It’s natural for my students to concern themselves with their own generation, whatever that happens to be. Only for the mature female writer does this prove something of a problem. Should she be in her 50s and interested in depicting the sexual and social predicaments of women her age, 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. (The alternative strategy, that of introducing a young and lively lead as a stalking horse and putting the writer’s more seasoned reflections into the mouth of a subsidiary character, may seem like contrivance, but the aging female novelist must be ingenious.)

That our society covets youth is not exactly news, and I suspect Weldon is overstating her position, at least a little, for humorous effect. She has a history of making cheeky claims, such as “I’m the only feminist there is—the others are all out of step,” so her argument here shouldn’t be taken too much to heart. But if this truly is the counsel she provides her writing students, she is doing them a disservice. Weldon may speak of sexism and ageism in publishing from first-hand experience, but that experience includes a prolific 50-year career as the author more than 50 books, including three children’s books and an autobiography of her early life: “If you want an account of my early life and times, to know how someone finally turns into a writer, I wrote an autobiography called Auto Da Fay in 2002. That was when I was 70. Not all that much interesting has happened since. Though I don’t know – I daresay if I wrote it up it could be made quite entertaining. But the sad truth is, my theory goes, that no-one is much interested in what happens to women after they turn 35. Which is the age at which I stopped Auto da Fay: the age I stopped living and started writing instead, as a serious person.” Instead of encouraging mature women writers to give in to writing younger characters or give up hope of being published, Weldon–as the only feminist there is–should be urging them to kick down some doors.

Because frankly, I don’t buy it. We’ve known for years that women buy, and borrow, more books overall than than men. The biggest segment of fiction buyers may be women under 45, but is anyone doing more than looking at raw numbers to figure out why?* More disposable income? Greater comfort with e-readers and tablets? I will tell you that I spend more money on books now that I have an e-reader (and it’s to publishers’ and e-booksellers’—and hopefully, authors’—benefit that I have an itchy click-to-purchase finger and sometimes lose track of what I download). On the other hand, my mother-in-law, who is closer to Weldon’s age, may get her books from the library, but she reads far more novels in a year than I have time to read. (Come to think of it, I know several 30-something women who get their book club books from the library, so it’s not just a matter of disposable income, but also spending priorities.)

Maybe more women under 45 read/buy fiction because they are more likely to see themselves represented in the novels they find on the shelves (real and virtual). Looking at the books on my end table and queued up on my Kindle, I’m hard-pressed to come up with any older female main characters who aren’t simply flashing back to their youth for the bulk of the book, even though older women authors feature prominently (my reading list is pretty well distributed among novels, short story collections, essay collections and other nonfiction, though). One recent example that’s fresh in my mind is Mollie Cox Bryan’s Cumberland Creek Mystery series, which features an 80-year-old retired physicist as one of three main viewpoint characters. (I don’t read mysteries widely, but I suspect cozies may be an exception to this alleged rule.) Another is Olive Wellwood in A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, and before that…Mrs. Dalloway? This is a challenging list to assemble—just give it a Google, and you will see my predicament.

"You should make her younger. Nothing interesting happens to women after 35."
“You should make her younger. Nothing interesting happens to women after 35.”

I’m approaching a certain age myself (or maybe I’m already there), and like many women who begin or return to writing in midlife, I am concerned with writing about not only what has been, but what is. Having been through my twenties some time ago, I’m not particularly inclined to relive them, in memory or on the page. It wasn’t my best decade. I spent it making a lot of mistakes and writing a lot of bad fiction. My thirties were an improvement, but consumed by continuing my education (and working to pay for it) and caring for my parents through lengthy illnesses until their deaths, two years apart. At 40, I had my first and only child, who is just about to turn eight. I consider my forties my best decade so far–relatively stable, with an abundance of life experiences to draw upon.

Yesterday I had lunch with a dear friend who is in her early forties. She told me she wants very much to read fiction about women our age, women who are working on their marriages, raising children, navigating careers, caring for aging parents, dealing with their changing bodies. So do I. I know we’re not alone. We’re on the younger end of the older woman spectrum—certainly many women our age and older also want to read about characters struggling with empty nests, caring for and losing partners, and work (for not everyone over 65 is retired, and retired does not equal idle).

Population-wise, it makes perfect sense; according to the 2010 U.S. Census, “Between 2000 and 2010, the population under the age of 18 grew at a rate of 2.6 percent. The growth rate was even slower for those aged 18 to 44 (0.6 percent). This contrasts with the substantially faster growth rates seen at older ages. The population aged 45 to 64 grew at a rate of 31.5 percent. The large growth in this age group is primarily due to the aging of the Baby Boom population. Finally, the population aged 65 and over also grew at a faster rate (15.1 percent) than the population under age 45.” All those Boomer women, outliving their male counterparts? Well, they have have a lot of time to read and write. And that generation, of which I’m on the cusp, is responsible for many of the gains young women now take for granted. So I say that if they (we) want to read characters that look like them (us), they (we) can make it happen.

For Weldon, modern publishing has a silver lining, however thin it may be. For one thing, there are no jacket photos for e-books, she points out. And if you have luck and genes on your side, there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel—the long, dark, apparently uneventful tunnel of middle age, not that other tunnel, the bright light at the end of which is to be avoided. ”Fortunately, if you just hang in there long enough and hit 80, you will emerge on the other side of the postmenopausal years into bright clear waters — so old as to seem ageless, sexless as a sage, remarkable if not for youth, why, then, for extreme age, and again a salable proposition for publishers.”

Here, I think of the venerable Alice Munro, who didn’t exactly labor in the shadows all those many years before being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. (She is a short story writer rather than a novelist, though, so perhaps she can be forgiven her stubborn persistence in writing what she wanted to write.) Munro has written both female and male characters, from one end of the human lifespan to the other, and why wouldn’t she? She published her first story as a teenager and didn’t stop until she announced her retirement last summer at age 81. That is a whole lot of life to write about. (Check out this recent conversation between Munro and Margaret Atwood, who has written many an interesting woman character herself.)

As women readers, writers, agents, and publishers, we need to resist the supposedly dominant paradigm that only young female characters are worth reading about. This doesn’t mean that we should boycott younger writers or books with younger characters, or that we as writers should never take the viewpoint of a younger female protagonist. Good writing is good writing, regardless of the age or gender of its main characters. Rather, it means that we should be real about where we are in our lives and not try to escape that reality by vicarious reliving (and maybe vicariously fixing) our youth. If we reject stories that center around older characters because, as Weldon puts it, we prefer “to identify with [our]selves when young and beautiful, when sexual power and adventures were for the taking and life was fun — not as [we] are now, with bulging hips and crepey necks,” we are, in essence, rejecting ourselves. (It might be relevant and not wholly unkind to mention that Weldon has written frankly about her own plastic surgery. Not that most of us don’t occasionally fantasize about putting the middle-age wattle under the knife, but I can’t help but think that when we actually do it, the terrorists win.)

Women Writers and Readers (and Agents and Editors and Publishers) of a Certain Age, we need a revolution. Allow me to propose a manifesto:

  • Write, read, and represent what you care about.
  • Support writers of a certain age by buying their books, and if not readily available, ask your bookseller to order them (pre-ordering soon-to-be released books is especially helpful to authors). If you’re more of a borrower, ask for them at the library. (Libraries provide a critical service, but as the co-head of a comfortable, dual-income household, I could put my money where my mouth is and buy those by writers whose work I value.) Assuming they have a web presence, visit those writers’ websites, read their blogs, and like their Facebook pages.
  • If you’re social media and technologically savvy, help the writers in your life who may need a hand dealing with technology and navigating independent publishing. (Electronic publishing is not as simple as Weldon makes it seem, and I think there’s a niche to be carved in indy publishing for author services aimed at helping mature writers navigate this rapidly-changing field—legitimate author services, that is, not the publishing equivalent of fly-by-night contractors who take old people’s money and disappear without doing the work promised.)
  • Create—nay, demand space for mature women authors and characters. I don’t even know what this means. Writing space? Reading space? Shelf space? I bet you have your own ideas. My point is, sisters are used to doing it for themselves. Make it happen.

Well, as far as manifestos go, it’s not much, but it’s a start. I’m eager to know what you think. Who are your favorite women writers? Your favorite books? Do the protagonists reflect who you are now? If you are “of a certain age” yourself, do you seek out fiction by older writers or whose work features older characters? Can you come up with a few titles that feature strong middle-aged and older female protagonists?

(*Presumably someone is, but the findings are an industry secret unless you want to fork over $999, which my local public and university libraries and I do not.)