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Celebrating Writers of a Certain Age

We are biologically wired to be inclined toward youth, so it makes sense that we as a culture revere it the way we do. Yet the flip side is to fear maturity, a fear that has infiltrated all walks of life, including the publishing industry. Our work as a culture and as writers is to recognize and celebrate the distinct grace, depth, and wisdom that writers of a certain age bring to the table and enjoy how much richer we all are as a result of the work they do.

by Jenna Kalinsky

Young people are awesome. They’re nubile, rosy-cheeked, full of enthusiasm. All those joints working so adorably, and isn’t it dear that they know everything?

People are enchanted by the shine of youth because it’s dazzling, but also because we’re biologically wired to be predisposed toward it; after all, it’s the young ones keeping the species going.

As a result, in all cultural realms, we revere the young, including the literary world, where young writers are touted as particularly notable. And indeed they often are, but they also often are for their age:

book in person's lap

Why Young Writers Are So Attractive

Look at all the fuss made over Zadie Smith when she wrote (the brilliant) White Teeth at only 21 years old and published it to great acclaim at 24. (And if you’ve read it, a fuss entirely earned.)

Other incredible young authors such as Helen Oyeyemi published What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours with Bloomsbury at age 21, Bret Easton Ellis who published Less than Zero also at 21, S.E. Hinton who wrote The Outsiders in high school, and Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in the history of the U.S., whose luminous fertile body work is inspiring a whole new generation.

Then, of our classic works’ set, Charles Dickens, Gore Vidal, and Mary Shelley all published their first works barely into their 20s.

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It’s thrilling to see extraordinary writing from someone so young, bearing prescience and depth beyond what one would expect from a person at that age, and to bathe in the accompanying cognitive dissonance of “How did they do that?”

(*Such thoughts can also overshadow the work itself as I recall happened for me when I read Everything Is Illuminated, knowing Jonathan Safran Foer was only in his mid-20s when he wrote it). 

But who hasn’t appreciated, perhaps with some gentle curiosity as much as enthusiasm, opening The New Yorker’s annual “20 under 40”?  It is fun to see what the next generation of freshlings is doing with ideas and language, how they’re taking their venerable teachers’ wisdom and turning it on its ear, and in what ways they’re interpreting new trends and reinterpreting old ones.

The Trouble with Pitting Youth Against Age

Where things get difficult is with the inevitable polarization that comes with pedestalizing one thing, which typically then relegates its opposite to something negative (or in the case of aging, a thing to stave off as long as possible).

In publishing, this translates to older authors having a somewhat harder time breaking into the industry purely due to their coming to it later in the game.

close up of old books on shelf

That’s not to say there are not many authors over mid-age arriving every day both via traditional and self-publishing, bringing high quality literature across the genres to audiences, but their journey is often not as full of wide-open doors as it could be.

Focusing on Age Undermines Authors' Contributions

Writers’ “certain age” may also become, like the youngest authors, a noted aspect of their work, reinforcing how special or distinctive it is for an author bearing some years to write books.

One could and should argue that older writers are the most suited to write as they are the ones who have lived and know how to process the complexity of life and bring it onto the page. An older person becoming a writer makes the most sense as a baseline.

Yet by reducing them to special for their age, it reinforces our cultural agism as well as undermines their contribution.

In “Am I Too Old for This?” a debut author at age 65 questions the publishing industry’s obsession with youth.

Publishing Industry's Focus on Platform Creation Requires Technical Know-How

An additional hurdle for an older author to feel welcomed and comfortable in the literary world is the myriad technical requirements with which they are tasked as they create and curate a platform. 

For a young author who has grown up with the Internet, leveraging Booktok may be quite easy and natural; for someone in their 70s or 80s, having to be ever-present on the web and negotiate the various social media platforms may be off-putting.

 

4 writers of a certain age sitting in a row on stage
Toronto Book Award Finalists, 2023

Of course, one doesn’t reach a certain age without learning a few things about themselves, including setting boundaries and knowing their limits. 

Not giving a rat’s patoot (or giving fewer rats’ patoots) about bending over backwards to play this particular game to gain followers may invite authors to enjoy or create other grassroots methods including face-to-face readings, events, and panel discussions: old school connections.

This author, who is 78 years old, decided to capitalize on his unfamiliarity with social media and other digital practices to seize on time and opportunity to create.

 

Writing and Maturity: the Most Natural Pairing for the Most Insightful Result

Fortunately, in recent years, we’re seeing greater positive celebratory emphasis on those senior voices and on the tenacity, fortitude, and depth that infuse the literature they create as older authors.

It’s a thrilling landscape we’re given that’s rich with insight: Margaret Atwood, the “prophet” of our time, outdoes herself with each new work as do Wole Soyinka and Alice Munroe, and as did the late Wallace Stevens, Grace Paley, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joan Didion, Dorris Lessing, and Toni Morrison.

“20 under 40”? Sure, but now try “8 over 80.”

These writers have changed the way we read and think forever all in their 80s and beyond.

These authors have also paved the way for others to bring their voices to the canon later in life. Where in any other industry, starting out at age 65 or 70 would not be possible, with writing, there are innumerable writers over 50 and up into their 90s, debuting works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry and reaching and inspiring readers—of all ages.

 

Celebrating Emerging Mature Authors

Several of our own One Lit Place authors began publishing books in their “second half” after completing full work careers, raising families, and deciding that writing was their calling.

  • Marianne Scott has now written 4 novels (and is currently on her 5th)
  • Julie Larade has published 2 novels and 2 children’s books (and is currently writing her 3rd novel)
  • Heather Mallett recently published her memoir of short stories
  • Visual artist Paul Cade is soon to publish his memoir


These writers, among many others who are in the midst of writing their novels and memoirs with us, inspire us to the greatest heights and show us what tenacity and drive truly look like.

In the end, it takes all kinds to run the world (and to knit together a most luxurious tapestry). Lay people still have a long hill to climb to embrace aging and all that comes along with it as a normal and beautiful part of life’s journey. Until they can stop saying things like a woman is “brave” for letting her hair go natural or that people “look good for their age,” the polarization of favoring youth and fearing age will remain.

As authors, however, we can continue to push forward the idea that a world filled with creative works of people at all ages is the healthiest one. We can do our part to normalize all moments of a person’s experience and celebrate and encourage the people who make art. All of them.

two women standing beside tree
Meeting in real life for the first time after working together for a decade!

We support writers of all ages, skill sets, and goals. It’s our abject pleasure to meet you where you are and help you get where you wish to go.

Please reach out any time for a free no-committment chat about your work!

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