When I was a young man in the early- to mid-eighties, I was in a hurry to succeed as a writer. I know that’s not unusual for young men, but the advice literary agents gave me then was like the advice all young men got: that I needed to be patient, and to earn my dues. Only many more years of experience and education would give me the chance I needed to pitch my novels. I didn’t like this much, of course, but when I looked around it seemed like most writers really were older men and women, so I played along.
It’s no secret that I am now one of those older men, with a lot of that experience. I have dozens of short-story credits, have taught hundreds of students how to write, and even briefly studied literature at Oxford University. Surely that’s enough to pitch my best novel. Surely it’s time for that chance to come.
Instead, I have to wonder if I’ve missed that chance.
In literally hundreds of pitches between two novels (Starlite Lanes: We Bowl for Democracy and Too Much Information), agencies have rarely given me more than a polite form-letter rejection. Sometimes it’s not even polite. Sometimes they give me nothing. Yes, I can feel the eyes rolling already on the other side of my screen, and I know that rejections often come to novels that deserve them. Maybe mine do… but Starlite Lanes has won Honorable Mentions in the Textnovel and Serena McDonald Kennedy awards, while TMI was featured on The Write Launch, and made the top ten of the 2017 Book Pipeline Contest. To earn this recognition, they must have some value: so what is going on?
Maybe it’s just a change of politics.
Remember the promising career young Joss Whedon had ahead just twenty years ago? He’s still active, I know, but we no longer seem interested in characters he invents. Looking around now, it seems like most of the writers (mostly, now, for film and TV) are grandfathered out by the time they’re in their thirties.
Then there’s that very phrase: “grandfathered.” It’s so filled with male-ness, it almost makes me feel guilty to use it, and the guilt itself stirs up another theory… but this one is going to be unpopular.
If being older has become a problem, then maybe being male makes the problem even worse.
When I was checking my Twitter-feed this morning, I came across a tweet from a female writer. I will paraphrase what she said to protect her identity, but it was something like this: she was never comfortable with the classics, because they were written by older men, and now she feels the #MeToo movement has justified that. A literary agent then replied to the tweet, asking for submissions of writing in that classic style, but by women.
Wow. What a thing to say about influential greats, who aren’t even alive to defend themselves. The implication that Updike or Dickens must have been sexually abusive is bad enough, but what followed it leaves someone like me in despair. Apparently, at least one agent believes that a given style of writing is only worth representation if a woman wrote it. In fact, one of my mentors—a younger woman, as it happens, who loves my novel—suggested to me just recently that it may not be getting attention because of my age and gender.
I know I am taking risks by posting this. If you are going to criticize me, then please don’t misquote me: I am absolutely thrilled that young writers of all genders and identities are getting a voice that we never had when I was younger. All I’m wondering is whether these voices are drowning out the others.
All I’m saying is that I wish I could have had my chance.