by Lynn Michell
‘Each incorporates the collected, distilled wisdom, a lifetime of reading, and the sheer radicalism that could not have been possible for a younger writer.’ – Jenny Bhatt
It worries me that the literary world continues to turn away from talented older writers while young authors, especially young first-time authors, are sought out and celebrated. I hear readers sigh as I raise this subject.
Joanna Walsh asks if first time writers have a sell-by date and wonders if judging fiction is akin to a beauty contest. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/14/best-new-writers-always-under-40-lists-young-joanna-walsh. Two years on, Walsh says that nothing has changed. ‘Authors under 40 get disproportionate support and their valorisation tends to push women and minorities to the margins.’ https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/sep/08/all-the-awards-for-young-writers-amount-to-discrimination. Jenny Bhatt describes her rejections from publishers as ageist put-downs. The reason they did not articulate was “debut older woman writer’. https://lithub.com/20-debut-works-of-fiction-by-women-over-40/
This reflects my experience as Director of Linen Press, one of very few independent women’s presses in the UK. I am putting out my books from a publishing ghetto of minority groups — women writers, women writers from minority ethnic groups, LGBT writers, and older woman writers. I founded Linen Press fourteen years ago so I speak across those years. Like Walsh, I see no move towards a fairer consideration of older writers, especially women. Age remains a feminist issue.
Let’s go back to our beginnings. I owe the conception of Linen Press to Marjorie Wilson who joined my writing group in Edinburgh and revealed a lyrical writing talent. Her turn-of-the-century memoir had been rejected by countless publishers so I took it on — with no knowledge or experience of the publishing business. Childhood’s Hill sold out, was re-printed, and beat Ian Rankin for one week in 2006 in Blackwell’s best sellers. It is described by The Scotsman as ‘luminous, episodic, sensual—rather like memory itself’. Marjorie saw her memoir published at the age of 96. I was smitten by the rewarding process of working closely with a talented writer and creating a beautiful book. Linen Press has not looked back.
Five of the most recent eight authors signed up by us are over sixty and it’s not happenstance that leads me to pick up submissions by older women. I am looking for novels of ideas and novels which engage fully with our complex, turbulent lives. I want thoughtful exposition, narratives embedded in political and historical contexts, narrative voices that ring with truth and wisdom. Who better to fulfil these criteria but older women who have led extraordinary lives but find the space to craft their stories only after childcare, after caring for ageing parents, after careers that could not be jettisoned. Stories that mine the deepest strata of emotional truth correlate frequently with maturity. Let me give you two examples.
Avril Joy spent twenty-five years working with women prisoners in HMP Low Newton. It was here in 1999 that she attended a creative writing class and was inspired to write. She has been writing ever since. Into her books and short stories she weaves her deep understanding and sympathy for women in captivity, not just those behind bars but others constrained by abuse, poverty and patriarchy. In Sometimes a River Song, Aiyana navigates her way towards literacy as the only means of escape from abuse in a riverboat community where cruelty to women is meted out as the norm. This book won the 2017 People’s Book Prize. It was two more years before Avril felt ready to write about the plight of women prisoners and give them a voice which she does in Going in with Flowers.
Clare Best had a career in publishing before she began to be published herself, in her 40s. Alongside her work as a poet and a university tutor in creative writing, she worked on a prose memoir for fifteen years. She was more than sixty before she felt ready to publish the central truth of her life — the story of the abuse and incest she suffered at the hands of her father. She needed the passing of time, and her father’s death, to be able to reclaim her own story and put it out into the world. Andrew O’Hagan describes The Missing List as ‘A tapestry of time — brightly coloured, beautifully orchestrated, emotionally pure.’
Neither Avril nor Clare could have written their acclaimed books when they were younger. There are other examples on our list, and on other publishers’ lists. Some of our experiences and ideas take a long time to understand and distill. We slowly circle towards our own truth until we can look without flinching and can seize the images and memories and craft them into a work of imagination. It’s a journey with detours, ditches and halt signs, and it can’t be done at speed.
I’m not knocking younger writers. Some exceptional young authors are represented on our list. I am asking for recognition for those who come to writing later in life, bringing decades of intuition and empathy, and who excel. I want awards cordoned off for mature women writers, like those offered by the Society of Authors. Instead we have selection by youth. The Hawthornden Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize are for writers under 40. The Betty Trask specifies under 35. This speaks of the ageism I deplore here, and accords with society’s attitude towards older women. We live in an age dominated by youth and celebrity and it’s increasingly hard to find a place where age is valued. In literature, surely, that space exists but it’s well hidden. Let’s find creative ways to shine a light on the glowing examples of prose and poetry by writers who have everything on their side but youth. It is time to single them out and sing their praises on an equal footing with those who are young.
• Lynn Michell’s second novel, Run Alice Run, looks with irony and black humour at the way society defines and diminishes women of a certain age.
‘A very rare thing – a literary novel about female ageing and sexuality that pulls no punches, and should be applauded for that.’
— Chapter and Verse