(note: I was originally asked to write this piece for another venue a while back, but because of a scheduling miscommunication, I was able to post it here instead.)
Ageism in Hollywood is no secret. Actress after actress, after screenwriter, after director has called it out. Screen great Helen Mirren called it “fucking outrageous.”
No argument there.
But is there ageism in the YA industry? Of course there is. We are a cross section of our society and not immune to any kinds of isms. But how does ageism manifest itself in our industry? How rampant is it?
I've been pondering this for a while. Wondering. I’ve seen tweets and heard comments by industry people I greatly admire, smart informed people who are in-the-know and sensitive about language and assumptions, and yet use the word “old” as a derogatory adjective in regard to people. If someone is a jerk, fine, but they are not a jerk because they are ugly, fat, another race, or any other aspect of their person, including because they are old.
But does it go deeper than that?
I know part of it is the limitation of our language. Old is most often associated with expired things like milk, or worn out things like shoes with holes in them. Things we want to discard. Does this negative association with the word become a background beat that has repercussions for individuals who have several decades under their belt?
Over a year ago, I responded to a young writer who was worried as she approached thirty that she was getting too old to be published. What?! I assured her she wasn’t and told her I wasn’t published until I was forty-four. I told her that since then I’d had ten books published in over twenty languages worldwide and had more to come. Age thirty wasn’t the end of the road by a long shot. But some time later I addressed a similar question from yet another young writer.
My antennae had already been rising a little higher, especially when I would go to a book event and I was the only older woman there, or I would see a lineup of panels posted on social media and all the faces were very young. I wondered, where are the older writers? Have they stopped writing? I don’t think so. And yet the perception says otherwise.
And then I saw a whole thread on Twitter from Susan Dennard, NYT bestselling author of the Witchland series. Susan has extensive writing information on her website so she hears from a lot of young writers. In Susan’s twitter thread I saw this same anxiety from young writers rearing its ugly head again—and again. The replies were staggering. I talked to her about this and she said:
“In March, I got a wee bit angry on Twitter about ageism in YA. I had seen someone complaining about turning 30 and being past their prime, and considering I am 34 and only just getting started in this business... Well, it set off a nerve. On top of that, I frequently get messages from young aspiring authors -- I'm talking under age 20! -- who think they have somehow missed the boat on success. I don't know if it's a product of Youtube and Instagram culture, where there are a lot of teenage success stories, but the reason doesn't really matter. The fact is that it isn't true, and this pervasive belief is deeply damaging. There is no expiration date on writing. There is no expiration date on success, and I will keep preaching this until my younger and older readers believe me.”
Preach it, Susan.
I boosted Susan’s thread with a tweet of my own and added:
“I’ve addressed this from young writers too. What bleeping message are we sending our daughters? We try to box women in from the day they are born. Stop. There is no creative clock ticking!”
Indeed, what message are we sending our daughters? And to published young women in their thirties? That their careers are limited?
There is a problem here. I think its roots are multifaceted and run deep, much of it grounded in our cultural obsession with beauty, and probably on a deeper level, fear of our own mortality. It has spawned an entire industry of “anti-aging” products. Because aging is horrible, right? Is invisibility one of its symptoms?
Award-winning author Louise Hawes, discussed this invisibility here, touching on the subject of where marketing dollars are being directed and especially addressing author photos on jackets. It prompted me to make sure my author photo was in my next book. While I don’t have gray hair, I do have wrinkles and I didn’t want my lack of an author photo to contribute to this sense of invisibility. I am sixty-two. I want readers to know older writers exist. We are still creating.
I spoke with Kate Elliott, NYT bestselling author of the Court of Fives series and more than twenty other novels, and she talked about this invisibility issue too, saying,
“About ten years ago when Rolling Stone Magazine published its usual best 50 albums of the year I ran a quick scan through the list. I can’t recall for sure but I’m going to guess that not more than five were albums by women, and of course not one of those women was over 35. The lack of woman artists being honored as “bests” was bad enough, but the other unexamined message was downright chilling: Older women don’t produce important art.
“Where I see a lack of older women—as characters, as role models, as a visible, valued presence in the arts (unless they established themselves as a big name when they were younger)—I see girls and young women being told they have no future to grow into even if they are the kickass heroine now, no important work to look forward to once they cross a certain threshold. It doesn’t have to be stated outright; it’s revealed by absence.”
If older women in the arts become a rare species, will young writers fear for their own careers? Will middle-aged women just give up because of some antiquated message our culture perpetuates? When was the last time we saw a fifty-year-old debut author being heralded? Publishing a book at a young age is, of course, remarkable, but so is publishing a book at fifty.
I’m concerned about the increased pressure on women in the writing world, thinking that a clock is ticking and their career choices are limited. As I said in my tweet, why do we always try to box women in from the day they are born? I felt it as a teen. I feel it now. Women are enough at whatever age they are. A twenty-year-old shouldn’t have to panic as she approaches thirty—or feel the rush to publish a book before she is ready. Likewise, an older woman writer should be proud of her age and every damn wrinkle she has acquired and not feel it is a hindrance to her career. And as a related aside, if I see one more cosmetic ad promising to “erase years” from my face or make me “look younger” I will scream. I don’t want to be young again—been there, done that—I have intense curiosity for the whole journey. Don’t suggest I should erase who I am. Stop shaming women of all ages. We are enough just as we are.
This is also personal for me. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. And I have friends, acquaintances, and writing colleagues, older women who have hit career and publishing walls. I want them all to see that we value women at every stage, and to see an abundance of older women who are active and vibrant and who have thriving careers. I want them to see that their choices are not limited, but wide open. No more ticking clocks.
I’ve chatted about this topic with Robin LaFevers, author of the NYT bestselling His Fair Assassin series and the forthcoming Courting Darkness, and she mentioned how easy it was for a woman to internalize this insidious message our culture broadcasts about aging women. She says, “We have to begin dismantling that, not only for ourselves, but for younger women who will be living even longer lives than we will. They will be faced with far more years of being told they have nothing of value to offer if we don’t start addressing this now.”
We have only scraped the surface here. The constraints of word count have left many other aspects of ageism yet to be explored, like the effects of ageism on men, the roles social media and platforms play, and more. I think this conversation is just beginning.
Finally, I was speaking with my agent, Rosemary Stimola, who has helped usher in many award-winning and bestselling books including the megahit Hunger Games. Agenting is Rosemary's third career, which she did not begin until her mid-forties, and she feels strongly that all that preceded it laid important groundwork for her becoming the agent she is—and she shows no sign of slowing down. She offered this about ageism, “I don’t think this notion is particular to writers, as ageism exists in all fields. In the end, we just keep showing them how wrong they are . . . ”