Gray Matter: Reading into Ageism

By Lisa Peet

“On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

This, for those who’ve never seen it, was the caption to Peter Steiner’s now-famous 1993 New Yorker cartoon. Even though the Internet had barely hit public consciousness at that point, the line struck a nerve. And no wonder: one of the great wonders of online life, in those days, was its anonymity. On the Internet, nobody knew what you looked like, how much you earned, where you grew up, or your level of education; nobody knew you were sitting home in your pajamas; and—famously—nobody knew you were a straight white guy. The Internet of the mid-’90s freed you to become anyone you wanted; it was the liberation of the keyboard.

Writers, of course, have long appreciated the protection of being preceded by their words; the term nom de plume first showed up in the 19th century, a good 150 years before we had such things as user names. Many of them were women competing in a man’s world: the Georges Sand and Eliot, the Brontë sisters before they hit their stride, science fiction writer James Tiptree, Jr.—born Alice Bradley Shelton. And who (of a certain age) doesn’t remember the shock of discovering that S.E. Hinton, author of The Outsiders, was actually Susan Eloise? In a recent New York Times article, Fay Weldon harks back 50 years:

I remember when looks started to matter in publishing. I began writing in the late ’60s—just as publishing was turning into an industry. The cult of personality had arrived, and writers could no longer be private people as my grandfather, my mother and my uncle, all professional novelists, had been. The notion of having author photos on book jackets appalled them: They believed they could write freely only if they felt anonymous.

Twenty years down the line, Steiner’s cartoon is a bit quaint, it’s understood that the Internet is public, rather than private. Moreover, the current culture is one of disclosure rather than concealment; a person’s online persona is a celebration of the personal. On the Internet these days, everyone had better know you’re a dog. Writers no longer have the luxury of being preceded by their words, and if you’re an older author looking to capture an increasingly fragmented audience, you need to contend with an age bias that isn’t always acknowledged.

This ageism is not a matter of media literacy—at least it doesn’t have to be any more. “Born digital” doesn’t necessarily translate into an unfair edge. Although there was a time, not so long ago, when an older author who embraced social media was at a disadvantage—not due to any lack of ability, but because she ran the immediate risk of becoming a curiosity. Remember how charmed everyone was in 2009 when Margaret Atwood got on Twitter? Atwood—a smart and forward-thinking woman, an accomplished writer and acclaimed inventor of worlds—was reduced to novelty status. “I love it when old ladies blog,” one of her early followers said by way of encouragement.

The most public expressions are the lists that have proliferated over the past decade: The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40, the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35, or the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award, which gives $10,000 each year to the best fiction writer under 35. It’s a different message from, say, Granta’s Best Young British (and Best Young American) Novelist issues, which date back to 1983—that series, which came out every ten years, was oriented toward pointing out an up-and-coming pack to keep an eye out for, while the current crop of awards are more inclined to spotlight writers who, despite their youth, have already arrived. (It’s why we felt the need to start a website like Bloom, which celebrates authors who first published after age 40.)

Still more pervasive than any ageism specific to writers is the very real lack of cultural currency when it comes to middle and old age as subjects. Bowker’s 2013 U.S. Book Consumer Demographics study shows that most buyers of both print and e-books are under 45, and a strong belief persists throughout the publishing industry that older characters won’t sell books; as if it were some kind of grim job interview, authors are routinely advised to shave ten or twenty years off their protagonists’ ages. And the buy-in is apparently pervasive: in her article, Weldon suggests that older women—who still make up a healthy percentage of book buyers—prefer to “identify with themselves when young and beautiful, when sexual power and adventures were for the taking and life was fun—not as they are now, with bulging hips and crepey necks.”

Even with the general graying of America, age is still the subject of fear, distaste, and—perhaps most creatively inhibiting—a certain kind of buffoonery. Imagine yourself a reader confronted with this turn in a novel:

Two colleagues have gone out for a business dinner; they share laughter, maybe an embarrassing moment navigated with good grace, excellent food, some wine. After leaving the restaurant, the two walk a few blocks to continue the conversation, then stop, fall silent. The chemistry between them flares; they pull closer, aroused, and kiss.

With an interesting backstory, some well-rendered romantic tension, and complex characters, this is a story you might want to read further, yes? And if the writer is skilled with a sex scene and can steer it away from the hundreds of potential clichés, it could be genuinely hot. The variations, of course, are what would make it interesting: the couple’s genders, their work situation, the setting, their stations in life and the shifts of power between them, whether they’re in their 20s, 30s, or 40s.

But what if they’re in their 60s? What if the difficult moment over dinner involved a soakingly hot flash for her; what if part of his delight in their passion involves a hard-on that isn’t occasioned by a blue pill? What if they’re working around the extra impediment of a cane, or an arm temporarily immobilized by a bursitis flareup? Do we really want to picture two old people making out?

And right there’s the problem. The image of a senior citizen in an incongruous situation has the consistent power of a gag cartoon. Grandpa on a Harley in a leather jacket; rapping Granny. Never mind that Grandpa could have easily been a biker all his life, or that if Granny is 65 now, “Rapper’s Delight” would have come out when she was 30. It’s that designation of “dad’s,” or “grandma’s,” that can make the most benign fact embarrassing, or at best silly.

This, then, is the double whammy for authors of a certain age. They—we—are capable and attractive individuals, and had damn well better market ourselves as such. But should we wish to write about our own capable and attractive cohort, society and the publishing business will discourage us in all sorts of implicit and overt ways.

There are wonderful and complex older characters in popular fiction who have received their share of accolades and prizes—think Marilynne Robinson’s books, Alice Munro’s short stories, Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer prize-winning Olive Kitteridge. But they’re only snapshots, really, of a wide and widening swath of the population. Encouraging older writers to take fewer risks translates into less innovation across an entire body of work, and readers’ belief in an older generation’s relevance can’t possibly flourish in such an atmosphere. Writers, readers, and publishers need to be willing to take chances on work that takes its older subjects seriously. Of course nobody wants to believe that their parents have sex. Our parents didn’t want to believe we did either, but they still bought books about it. We owe them as much.

Lisa Peet is a writer, editor, and artist and a recent recipient of a Masters in Library & Information Science. She is the senior editor and writer at Bloom, a site devoted to highlighting, profiling, reviewing, and interviewing authors whose first major work was published when they were age 40 or older, and proprietor/senior writer at the literary blog Like Fire.

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    1 Response

    1. Kate Maloy

      Wonderful piece, Lisa! And you’re right that older writers–the ones who have been strong presences for decades–are still going strong. The rest of us struggle. I’m lucky that my 75-year-old protagonist, Sarah Lucas, is still finding an audience after having been 75 for more than six years now, longer if you’re counting the years of writing and prepublication. Her fans don’t constitute a mob, or even a throng, but the tale of Sarah’s family in Every Last Cuckoo still brings letters from readers, and even steady, if modest, royalties. But with only one published novel, I am not a strong presence, and ageism is a shackle. I’m heading into Sarah’s decade later this year and find it a daunting prospect.

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