Why can’t life begin after 40 for a writer?
Without knowing it, writes Fiona Gartland, as far as the market was concerned, I’d already timed out
Fiona Gartland: if under 40 had always been the rule, we would not have heard of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or The Little House on the Prairie from Laura Ingalls Wilder
Last year, at a writing festival in rural Ireland about 60 attendees sat listening to presentations from publishers and agents. It was the kind of segment that has been popular on the writing festival circuit for quite a while now. The attendees hear a lot of familiar advice from people in the industry, both domestic and overseas. And there are occasional insights into the metamorphic and precarious state of the publishing industry.
At this particular event, there was a lot of advice about presentation, synopses and introduction letters, how authors should market themselves and their books, and the common mistakes made by aspiring novelists.
Some presenters included anecdotes involving awful submissions they’d received. There was one story about a submission of three chapters with ketchup on the pages that stuck them together. Another speaker described a submission lazily forwarded with the rejection note of a previous publisher still attached. And a third story was about the increasingly angry stream of emails received by one of the agents that followed a polite “thanks, but no thanks”.
Attendees laughed along like insiders, sure they would never make such mistakes. Of course no one in that room would have dreamt of trying to enter into correspondence about their work with a publisher or agent once they’d received their rejection letter. Certainly, like any other sane person, those gathered there could take “no” for an answer.
No one would ever consider sending manuscripts to multiple publishing houses simultaneously instead of waiting for rejection or acceptance from one house at a time. And if a book had been self-published on the internet, no one would have insulted the professionals present by passing the book off as entirely fresh.
An hour into the session, the questions and answers element got under way. The usual inquiries were made: did the speakers have a preferred format? Double-spaced; Times New Roman; unjustified.
Do they accept self-illustrated children’s books? No; yes; maybe.
Any advice for a writer with multiple rejections? Consider joining a writing group; read more; put your work aside and try again later.
How much will I get paid if I do get accepted? Not a lot; not a lot; not a lot.
Still, despite the bucket of cold water that rinsed away any lingering illusions of self-sufficiency through writing, enthusiasm remained. The work was the thing, after all, and if publication did not bring money at least it would bring satisfaction. The atmosphere was relaxed, the tone conspiratorial; cloud-filtered sunlight softened the room. It was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
Then someone asked that question about age. Are you more likely to take on a writer who is under 35? Eh; well; yes.
“The fact is the market finds younger, first-time writers a more attractive sell.”
Ouch! At least half the attendees were on the wrong side of that line, some more wrong than others. That flickering flame of hope, on which all writers’ festivals feed, sputtered then. Just as well it was Sunday and there was nothing left but a reading by the local poet.
On the drive home I thought of my own efforts at writing, a novel I had been tipping away at for a while, first for pleasure and then with the hope of eventual publication. Without knowing it, as far as the market was concerned, I’d already timed out.
I thought of all those lists that are published of promising writers; “up and coming under 30”, “40 under 40 you must read”. I know encouraging young writers is important and anything that contributes to that is good. The publishing world is hard to crack and those starting out need all the help they can get. Young writers need to be nurtured. The “voice of a new generation” must contribute to the world.
But if under 40 had always been the rule, we would not have heard of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or The Little House on the Prairie from Laura Ingalls Wilder. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe would never have entered the collective imagination and where would we find Mary Wesley’s Camomile Lawn?
English author Joanna Walsh, who runs @Read_Women, has argued that ageism in publishing silences minorities and women in particular because women are more likely to be the ones who spend part of their lives caring for children, which makes finding time to write more difficult. She says “older women are already told every day in ways ranging from the subtle to the blatant, that they are irrelevant and should shut up”. Placing age barriers, for example for writing awards, is arbitrary and “a particularly cruel irony” for those unable to write in their youth, she says.
Some men, too, take time to find their voices, particularly if they’re from disadvantaged backgrounds. And some struggle very hard to quieten the self-criticism that must be put to one side long enough to complete a first draft. Others don’t discover the urge to write until other urges have waned.
Though not analogous, a comedy drama with Woody Allen comes to mind in which he plays The Front, ghosting for blacklisted writers during the McCarthy witch hunts in the 1950s. He becomes very successful and is asked why he started writing so late.
“Well, because in order to write you gotta get experience and you gotta live, and life is experience . . . so I had to, you know, get that experience.”
The fact he was someone only pretending to be a writer does not diminish his argument in my view.
Not everyone finds a voice in their youth. There are generations who only learn or are free to write in later life. It doesn’t mean what they have to say is any less valuable or any less worthy of hearing. So give us “aged out” writers a chance. We might surprise you.
Fiona Gartland has been a journalist with The Irish Times for 13 years. She lives in Dublin with her husband and four children. In the Court’s Hands is a murder mystery based in and around the Criminal Courts of Justice. It is published under the Poolbeg Press Crimson imprint and launched this evening at 6pm in Hodges Figges, Dawson Street, Dublin. All welcome