Famous exceptions aside, it seems it would be difficult to dispute the existence of age-discrimination in literary publishing. Yet, as with the VIDA’s The Count, members of “the majority” will always want to claim: (a) false or incomplete data, or (b) there are very good reasons the gap is in place (i.e. “I can’t help it if the majority of the quality books in the fields I read are by men.”). For some reason, though – perhaps because it’s far more difficult to “prove” with numbers – more are willing to acknowledge that “in literature, we now seem to value youth above all else. First novels by 20-somethings are treasured commodities, as if the young regularly have something interesting to say.”
When VIDA’s first Count came out in spring 2011, I thought then of writing a brief essay for VIDA offering the possibility that my androgynous name probably helped me become an early exception to the (never-compiled) statistics for the 1980-90’s, when my first novel, How to Leave a Country was awarded the PEN Nelson Algren Award from judges who admitted to not knowing my gender. Before that my first 2 books of stories were widely reviewed, although not in most of the places from which VIDA gathered numbers. So I’m aware of how exceptions work, and how they don’t disprove the primary hypothesis.
Similarly I could also begin these thoughts on age-discrimination by offering myself as an exception, again with the PEN Nelson Algren award novel, about which the judges said, “… would seem to be the work of a young person but only because of its freshness. Its clarity and simplicity, however, suggest an older writer’s attention and experience.” To Grace Paley and Studs Terkel, I was of both unknown gender and age. But the judges of this award also proved themselves to not be concerned with a book’s marketing viability, and the novel went 8 more years without finding a publisher after landing this award.
The prize, the 8 years, and that it was my first novel were enough of a platform for its eventual (and audacious) independent publisher (Coffee House) to launch a promotional campaign that resulted in a greater-than-average number of reviews, mostly in big city daily newspapers, plus the “big three” review publications: Kirkus, NYTBR, and Publisher’s Weekly. This anecdote serves to prove many things, among them (a) that books are reviewed as much because of the story of their (and their authors’) journeys into print as for what is between their covers; as well as (b) how much the book-reviewing industry has changed in 25 years. Recently VIDA has proven how much it has not changed.
While it appears age-discrimination, especially against women, cannot be rooted out of the societal crevices into which it has settled, seemingly with permanence, the publishing industry’s age biases seem to be mostly with 3rd , 4th (etc) books, especially by “older” writers, and not necessarily only the commercial publishers; and not necessarily only in whether or not a book gets published, but in whether or not the literary world’s media machine, blogs and social networking, and general readership are willing to pay any attention. Still true: it is not the quality of writing, not the art of forming language into an entity, often not even a writer’s rare take on a topic that makes a book “worthy,” but whether or not a reader’s friends are talking about it. Buzz. Once it’s there, it snowballs. And it seems lack of age – or lack of experience – can more easily start the first hum.
I now tell my students they only have one first novel; don’t waste it.
Years ago, a talented student (while still a student) published two books with an independent press, one of them a novel. For personal reasons, she used a pseudonym. A dozen years later, she placed a book with an agent who placed it with a medium-sized commercial press. On advice of both agent and editor, the book’s promotional copy begins with; “A sparkling debut …” and her bio includes “… now working on a second novel.” Despite her attempts to justify her newly created first-novelist persona as “I’m not the same person anymore,” (and “I’m willing to write under my own name now”), it is still an obvious marketing/promotional ploy to claim the new book is her “debut” – to essentially pretend that she has not written a novel before this, so that she could take advantage of “first book” marketability. The first novel was not entirely published into a vacuum, and there were countable readers who knew who she was. It’s not nearly what white middle-class Margaret Seltzer did when she published a memoir as Margaret B. Jones, adopting the persona of a biracial woman from a gang-infested urban neighborhood. But isn’t my former student adopting the guise of a debut novelist for the sake of gaining the kind of attention seen as a first-novel’s “right”?
I admit to have been shaken down to my born-into-a-whole-new-world toes, not only by her attempts to justify the new version of herself as a writer with no previous experience writing and publishing a novel, but by the agent’s and publisher’s apparent complicity in changing the facts to suit marketing … and changing those facts to facilitate a “younger” writer-persona.
And then there was this: another former student, this one still unpublished, reported this conversation with an agent:
Him: Do you have a blog?
Him: Any kind of website?
Him: Facebook presence?
Me: So what I’m hearing from you is, it’s important to build an online presence prior to having a book published.
Him: I’m glad that’s what you’re hearing, because that’s exactly what I’msaying.
She summed up: “What I find objectionable about that style of self-promotion is that it’s like you have to build a character out of yourself. You can’t blog something like, ‘Didn’t sleep well last night. Wrote a little. Will go buy a new broom now,’ because then your would-be readers think that you’d be dull at parties. You have to be fun! And quirky! Because that’s the only way to get the following before the book, right?”
How is “gaining a following before the book” related to age-discrimination? Maybe only in my own already-anxious head. It certainly should apply only to first-book authors, but I’m sensing otherwise. I’m sensing that writers like me – writers who used to be able to rely on some reputation built on a body of work, and who used to be able to rely on what was contained on the pages themselves without the personality of the (possibly reclusive or at least introverted) author playing much of a role – might also be expected, now, to have a persona, a quirky or exotic or controversial one, to use phrases like “kickass” or “sexy” or “in-your-face” or “rocking” or “wicked awesome” to describe things that are, actually, books or interviews or articles or reviews, because then you’ll be more apt to be viewed as kickass or sexy, because aren’t those qualities necessary to prove your book is worth being read (or to prove you are wicked awesome enough to use those words in that way, which, already, by the time you start using them, have been settled into the lexicon of the perpetually hip for at least 10 years )? And look how female author photos are trending away from the clichéd somber/pensive and assuming glamorous model poses in alluring wardrobe (have agents and editors actually started to ask for “more cleavage?”), so as to deserve the adjective “crazy hot” to describe the book.
“So,” my former student concluded, “I find myself wasting time trying to make a blog entry about the bland interaction I had with a cashier at Target even remotely interesting, because I am the spunky protagonist of my own life and I have a blast wherever I go.”
This reminds me of high school, when the enduring hope some of us had to hang onto was that someday our life’s “real” accomplishments would demonstrate how shallow and flimsy being cool and popular really was. But here we go again:
… in high school, whether we knew it or not, whether we were aware of it or not, … there was an underlying understanding that boys wouldn’t like girls who were pensive and smart or who looked serious and intellectual, or worse yet, somber, gloomy, reclusive, or a snob (i.e. shy). … Is this like that? The bubbly, effervescent [or cool, sexy] girls [and women who act like them] will succeed as writers too? (from “The Merry-Go-Round is Beginning to Taunt Me” by Cris Mazza and Davis Schneiderman.)
So, am I talking about age discrimation, or about those who get left behind by the social-media revolution? How many of the independent publishers who carry my most recent books have any authors besides me who are both (a) female & (b) my age or older? Is it legal to ask the question? Is it ethical to ask, or viewed as embittered chip-on-the-shoulder cynicism? Why does the word embittered seem to invoke the image of a hag (i.e. older woman) while the less prejorative synonym cynical conjurs an older/experienced man? Why is there no male parallel for hag? Geezer?
What bridge have I crossed to get here?
I’ll conclude with the promised more complete citation for the quote in my opening paragraph: Remember when we used to wryly complain about being called “women writers” — or worse: that we wrote “women’s fiction” — as though regular no-need-for-definition authors were men, and no-need-to-categorize fiction was “male” ? Now, when we’re included, even in this way, it’s in parenthesis as it by Pauls Toutonghi’s “In Praise of Older Men (and Women) Writers.
Why couldn’t his title be “In Praise of Older Writers?” Was that so complicated?
 Toni Morrison was 56 when she published Beloved.
Sue Monk Kidd was 54 when she published The Secret Life of Bees.
Annie Proulx was 57 when she published The Shipping News.
Jaimy Gordon was over 60 when she won the American Book Award for Lord of Misrule.
 (Pauls Toutonghi in Publisher’s Weekly. A more complete citation will come later.)