Getting published when you are ‘old’: Look out! Here comes agism and sexism!

So, here’s the thing:

I’ve been seeing a lot of articles lately about women being published when they are ‘old’. By this, the writer means 50 years old or so. They talk about it as if this is some kind of huge carnival of achievement, a moment to hang out the flags, like Captain Tom walking 100 laps at nearly 100 years old. They talk about it in a tone that suggests a patronising pat on the head, ‘aww, poor little biddy, isn’t she sweet, writing her little stories!’

The most recent one I read, published by The Novelry, seems to involve the writer having to make excuses for starting so late.

Poor woman. I mean, why should she have to explain why she didn’t get her first novel published until she was in her fifties? Especially not to a cheeky ageist questioner asking ‘What took you so long?’ at a publicity event!

Now, I’m pretty sure that if she had been a man, that question would not have been asked. You know what I’m talking about here.

A man aged fifty is in his prime, he’s lived a full life, he’s got something to say.

A woman aged fifty is old. Past it. Irrelevant. At best, a charity case.

When I first started talking about being a professional writer, I was 14 years old.

In those days, and it wasn’t that long ago no matter what the mirror tells me, everyone said you had to be older to write a book. You had to have life experience. You had to have lived a bit so that you had something to say.

I wrote my first novel when I was 16. It was predictably crap. But thats ok. I wrote another one at 18. That was crap, but memorable crap. An old school friend quoted some of it back to me only the other day. It was a happy memory to share, and I learned a lot from it.

But then University and boyfriends and first jobs and getting married happened, and then I contracted ME/CFS, and had to learn to live with a chronic limiting condition with all sorts of lovely bolt-ons like IBS and Menieres Disease. (ME/CFS is the gift that keeps on giving. It offers you a smorgasbord of exciting new illnesses, rashes, limitations, and the additional fun of long term chronic pain and cognitive debility into the bargain).

And then of course, later, we were trying to care for elderly parents living with dementia which, as anyone who has every done it knows, is a full-time job in itself, even without a long term illness. So my vague dream of getting a novel published before I was 20 evaporated.

I was exhausted and sick. I needed a way to escape my life. I needed a way to express myself. I needed to have fun. What I didn’t need was constant rejections from publishers or agents, and the endless confidence catastrophes that face every writer trying to get into the conventional publishing arena.

And because I refused to engage with that world, for the sake of preserving what was left of my sanity and my health, everyone seemed to think I wasn’t taking my writing seriously, that I was just a hobbyist, or even, that I wasn’t good enough to get published and was just making excuses to cover the fact.

I turned to writing fan fiction, which everyone looked down on, because it offered me a low anxiety environment to learn and experiment. Its as a fantastic apprenticeship and I don’t regret it one little bit. I’m proud of the works I made for Fanfiction.com and AO3. I learned my trade and found fellow writers and readers who supported me and gave me helpful feedback. I played. And I had lots of fun.

Not getting published was, for me, a deliberate strategy.

I wanted to enjoy my writing. I wanted to improve. And I wanted to write for myself.

In other words, it wasn’t anybody else’s business.

Fast forward to twenty years. I was lucky enough to get onto a prestigious MA in Creative Writing. The twenty years I had spent writing fan fiction and five unpublished novels (for my own pleasure) stood me in good stead. A contact in the industry asked me, aghast, why I had never been published before.

Because thats not what I wanted.

I am in the middle of my fifth decade, and the publishing industry has changed. Bright young things are now the norm, and old lags like me are anomalies. If a publisher buys my new novel, there will be plenty of people asking that same question: why didn’t you do it sooner?

As if I’m an idiot. As if I was ridiculous to wait till I’m old, ugly and useless.

Let me tell you, I am none of those things.

I didn’t waste those twenty years. If you want to know why I didn’t get published sooner, well this is the answer:

  1. I was busy having a life. In fact, rather more life than I could handle at times.
  2. I was enjoying writing for myself rather than anyone else.
  3. My age has nothing to do with when I get published. Its the skill and the story that counts.
  4. Actually, it’s no one else’s business anyway.

Finally, as my brother-in-law pointed out, Mary Wesley didn’t publish her first novel for adults until she was 71. Thereafter she became a rampaging success. So why is anybody talking about the age of women writers?

Because they are sexist and ageist.

love EF

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