Living in Parenthesis

by Cris Mazza

Famous exceptions[1] aside, it seems it would be difficult to dispute the existence of age-discrimination in literary publishing.  Yet, as with the VIDA’s The Count, members of “the majority” will always want to claim: (a) false or incomplete data, or (b) there are very good reasons the gap is in place (i.e. “I can’t help it if the majority of the quality books in the fields I read are by men.”).   For some reason, though – perhaps because it’s far more difficult to “prove” with numbers – more are willing to acknowledge that “in literature, we now seem to value youth above all else. First novels by 20-somethings are treasured commodities, as if the young regularly have something interesting to say.”[2]

When VIDA’s first Count came out in spring 2011, I thought then of writing a brief essay for VIDA offering the possibility that my androgynous name  probably helped me become an early exception to the (never-compiled) statistics for the 1980-90’s, when my first novel, How to Leave a Country was awarded the PEN Nelson Algren Award from judges who admitted to not knowing my gender. Before that my first 2 books of stories were widely reviewed, although not in most of the places from which VIDA gathered numbers.  So I’m aware of how exceptions work, and how they don’t disprove the primary hypothesis.

Similarly I could also begin these thoughts on age-discrimination by offering myself as an exception, again with the PEN Nelson Algren award novel, about which the judges said, “… would seem to be the work of a young person but only because of its freshness. Its clarity and simplicity, however, suggest an older writer’s attention and experience.”  To Grace Paley and Studs Terkel, I was of both unknown gender and age.  But the judges of this award also proved themselves to not be concerned with a book’s marketing viability, and the novel went 8 more years without finding a publisher after landing this award.

The prize, the 8 years, and that it was my first novel were enough of a platform for its eventual (and audacious) independent publisher (Coffee House) to launch a promotional campaign that resulted in a greater-than-average number of reviews, mostly in big city daily newspapers, plus the “big three” review publications: Kirkus, NYTBR, and Publisher’s Weekly. This anecdote serves to prove many things, among them (a) that books are reviewed as much because of the story of their (and their authors’) journeys into print as for what is between their covers; as well as (b) how much the book-reviewing industry has changed in 25 years.  Recently VIDA has proven how much it has not changed.

While it appears age-discrimination, especially against women, cannot be rooted out of the societal crevices into which it has settled, seemingly with permanence, the publishing industry’s age biases seem to be mostly with 3rd , 4th (etc) books, especially by “older” writers, and not necessarily only the commercial publishers; and not necessarily only in whether or not a book gets published, but in whether or not the literary world’s media machine, blogs and social networking, and general readership are willing to pay any attention.  Still true: it is not the quality of writing, not the art of forming language into an entity, often not even a writer’s rare take on a topic that makes a book “worthy,” but whether or not a reader’s friends are talking about it.  Buzz.  Once it’s there, it snowballs.  And it seems lack of age – or lack of experience – can more easily start the first hum.

I now tell my students they only have one first novel; don’t waste it.

Years ago, a talented student (while still a student) published two books with an independent press, one of them a novel.  For personal reasons, she used a pseudonym.  A dozen years later, she placed a book with an agent who placed it with a medium-sized commercial press.  On advice of both agent and editor, the book’s promotional copy begins with; “A sparkling debut …” and her bio includes “… now working on a second novel.”  Despite her attempts to justify her newly created first-novelist persona as “I’m not the same person anymore,” (and “I’m willing to write under my own name now”), it is still an obvious marketing/promotional ploy to claim the new book is her “debut” – to essentially pretend that she has not written a novel before this, so that she could take advantage of “first book” marketability.  The first novel was not entirely published into a vacuum, and there were countable readers who knew who she was.  It’s not nearly what white middle-class Margaret Seltzer did when she published a memoir as Margaret B. Jones, adopting the persona of a biracial woman from a gang-infested urban neighborhood.  But isn’t my former student adopting the guise of a debut novelist for the sake of gaining the kind of attention seen as a first-novel’s “right”?

I admit to have been shaken down to my born-into-a-whole-new-world toes, not only by her attempts to justify the new version of herself as a writer with no previous experience writing and publishing a novel, but by the agent’s and publisher’s apparent complicity in changing the facts to suit marketing … and changing those facts to facilitate a “younger” writer-persona.

And then there was this: another former student, this one still unpublished, reported this conversation with an agent:

Him: Do you have a blog?
Me: No.
Him: Any kind of website?
Me: No.
Him: Facebook presence?
Me: So what I’m hearing from you is, it’s important to build an online presence prior to having a book published.
Him: I’m glad that’s what you’re hearing, because that’s exactly what I’msaying

She summed up: “What I find objectionable about that style of self-promotion is that it’s like you have to build a character out of yourself. You can’t blog something like, ‘Didn’t sleep well last night. Wrote a little. Will go buy a new broom now,’ because then your would-be readers think that you’d be dull at parties. You have to be fun! And quirky! Because that’s the only way to get the following before the book, right?”

How is “gaining a following before the book” related to age-discrimination? Maybe only in my own already-anxious head.  It certainly should apply only to first-book authors, but I’m sensing otherwise.  I’m sensing that writers like me – writers who used to be able to rely on some reputation built on a body of work, and who used to be able to rely on what was contained on the pages themselves without the personality of the (possibly reclusive or at least introverted) author playing much of a role – might also be expected, now, to have a persona, a quirky or exotic or controversial one, to use phrases like “kickass” or “sexy” or “in-your-face” or “rocking” or “wicked awesome” to describe things that are, actually, books or interviews or articles or reviews, because then you’ll be more apt to be viewed as kickass or sexy, because aren’t those qualities necessary to prove your book is worth being read (or to prove you are wicked awesome enough to use those words in that way, which, already, by the time you start using them, have been settled into the lexicon of the perpetually hip for at least 10 years )?  And look how female author photos are trending away from the clichéd somber/pensive and assuming glamorous model poses in alluring wardrobe (have agents and editors actually started to ask for “more cleavage?”), so as to deserve the adjective “crazy hot” to describe the book.

“So,” my former student concluded, “I find myself wasting time trying to make a blog entry about the bland interaction I had with a cashier at Target even remotely interesting, because I am the spunky protagonist of my own life and I have a blast wherever I go.”

This reminds me of high school, when the enduring hope some of us had to hang onto was that someday our life’s “real” accomplishments would demonstrate how shallow and flimsy being cool and popular really was.  But here we go again:

… in high school, whether we knew it or not, whether we were aware of it or not, … there was an underlying understanding that boys wouldn’t like girls who were pensive and smart or who looked serious and intellectual, or worse yet, somber, gloomy, reclusive, or a snob (i.e. shy). … Is this like that? The bubbly, effervescent [or cool, sexy] girls [and women who act like them] will succeed as writers too? (from “The Merry-Go-Round is Beginning to Taunt Me” by Cris Mazza and Davis Schneiderman.)

So, am I talking about age discrimation, or about those who get left behind by the social-media revolution?  How many of the independent publishers who carry my most recent books have any authors besides me who are both (a) female & (b) my age or older?  Is it legal to ask the question?  Is it ethical to ask, or viewed as embittered chip-on-the-shoulder cynicism?  Why does the word embittered seem to invoke the image of a hag (i.e. older woman) while the less prejorative synonym cynical conjurs an older/experienced man?  Why is there no male parallel for hagGeezer?

What bridge have I crossed to get here?

I’ll conclude with the promised more complete citation for the quote in my opening paragraph: Remember when we used to wryly complain about being called “women writers” — or worse: that we wrote “women’s fiction” — as though regular no-need-for-definition authors were men, and no-need-to-categorize fiction was “male” ? Now, when we’re included, even in this way, it’s in parenthesis as it by Pauls Toutonghi’s “In Praise of Older Men (and Women) Writers.

Why couldn’t his title be “In Praise of Older Writers?”  Was that so complicated?

[1] Toni Morrison was 56 when she published Beloved.
Sue Monk Kidd was 54 when she published The Secret Life of Bees.
Annie Proulx was 57 when she published The Shipping News.
Jaimy Gordon was over 60 when she won the American Book Award for Lord of Misrule.

[2] (Pauls Toutonghi in Publisher’s Weekly. A more complete citation will come later.)

Living in Parenthesis

11 thoughts on “Living in Parenthesis

  1. I immediately recognized your name because of my work with The Count. I have grown very familiar with gender ambiguous names in the writing world; whether or not a name holds clout is unclear, but the numbers are not. Our society places overwhelming emphasis on youth and it is a natural progression that this leak into the publishing world. It may even be a sign that women are being published more because it is unlikely that a man’s youth would be considered as strong of a selling point as a woman’s.
    Authors have always been expected to “sell themselves” to a degree, but with author websites (invaluable to The Count) and social media, authors have to create an intriguing persona to draw readers in. The internet is saturated with writing, good, bad, or indifferent. Many books can be read online and blogs have taken the place of much non-fiction in people’s lives. It may be this competition that is pushing publishers to turn out novels by shiny, young, pretty things. Who isn’t intrigued by virginity? Who doesn’t want to crack open the first novel by a sexy writer whose author photo says “come hither?”
    This being said, it is an abomination. Women are not safe anywhere from being objectified. If this is how to get into the boys club, I say we start a girls club and leave them to their dusty volumes.


  2. Amen. to the above.
    well, no.
    well, no. A human who has walked the planet.
    (The French are perhaps cooler…they say of all woman of a certain age…a woman of a certain age. )
    In praise of writers. good ones. of all ages. genders. planets.
    of a certain age.

    of ” Beautiful Soon Enough” (FC2)

    (with appreciation to you, Cris Mazza, for what you have written in and out of parenthesis.)


  3. renkat says:

    “This reminds me of high school, when the enduring hope some of us had to hang onto was that someday our life’s “real” accomplishments would demonstrate how shallow and flimsy being cool and popular really was.”

    I have that thought as well.

    But. I keep wondering if it has always been like this? Is the dream of becoming the Respected American Novelist as false as the American Dream itself?

    In another vein:

    I recently read an essay moaning about how American art was in a sorry state because no one is in a panic to make their mark before they die, because we all expect to live so long. I didn’t agree with much in the article, but it left me wondering if the bias toward youth is there because so many writers have died young and we romanticize that. (For example, what would our attitudes about insane artists be if no one had ever though Van Gogh cut off his ear and shot himself in the stomach).

    Why is the mature community invisible even to the mature community? Why do we watch romcoms about “glory days” that (at least in my experience) were never really glory days. Why do we want to (or maybe the question is “do we really”) read novels by people going through angst we find nostalgic rather than relevant?

    In our culture, “Young” is a compliment that is synonymous with “beautiful” in casual conversation.

    So, we no longer need to rush to find a healthy mate before one of us dies – but we still live like we do and prize innocence above experience? I am seriously not intrigued by virginity. I am sure I am not alone in that.

    Circling back: until it is “cool” to be wise and wrinkled, we will all be pandering to the popular kids, whether we believe what we are reading or not.


  4. I just returned from a few weeks in Paris, where young men and teenage boys ogled and flirted with me in a manner I have experienced since my late 30s. I just turned 55. I’m more sexual (and sensual) now than I have ever been, and certainly more confident. Wisdom, yes. Knowledge, yes yes. A better, smarter writer, yes yes yes. Perhaps I’ll move to France.


    1. Yourcenar, de Beauvoir, Duras, Weil?…are you asking, Ren, if French publishing has made room for women who are not youth icons and have much to say and are published? That answer could be yes. Do the current publishing lists prove more interesting than elsewhere? I cannot offer numbers. But in terms of “attitude” – I’d say the climate is often better.

      (A friend over 50 just published a book called “Les Guerrieres”… the feminine is in the spelling without needing to say “Women Warriors.” But that’s what her book is about. It’s also about their violence The book is getting excellent press and doing well. )

      I hope it may be true elsewhere, but the France where I woke this morning seems able to respect ripened fruit, so to speak. Yes, there are anorexics in tight jeans. And face lifts. And other neuroses. But as Debra mentions above – it ain’t a bad place to be a wiser woman who writes.


      1. renkat says:

        All of your examples are women who published in the 20s – 50s. In my mind, that is a bit like pulling up Sexton, Plath and Harper as proof American publishers don’t discriminate against women.

        Youcenar’s first book was published when she was in her twenties. So, yes, Margo. I am still asking the same question.


  5. renkat says:

    To clear things up a little before it gets too messy:

    Debra wrote, “I just returned from a few weeks in Paris, where young men and teenage boys ogled and flirted with me in a manner I have not experienced since my late 30s. I just turned 55. I’m more sexual (and sensual) now than I have ever been, and certainly more confident….”

    Then I weirdly asked about older women represented in current publishing trends. I am realizing now that I made an unconscious connection between women being considered sexually desirable and women being published.

    The question is, though: Is this because (I am begging the question that) publishers pick sexy writers for marketing purposes (or other purposes)? Or is it because I (maybe we both) was connecting women being made to feel sexually desirable with self confidence… and then that confidence resulting in more publishing?…

    I assume there is a whole layer of significance in regard to desirable *to whom*.

    Is it even possible to remove sex from the table? I am not sure we can even do that in regards to men. The beautiful are published because they are beautiful. The ugly because they are driven to overcompensate. We have a long way to go before we can sort all this out.


    1. Beauty. Sex. Publishing. that’s a lotta laundry that needs washing. Add to that: vulnerability (the good kind that makes for good and better writing.) And add a dose of confidence with the bleach. yes, I often need it all — to walk out the door. true. And none of it, none of it at all is any kind of guarantee. That’s what i whisper the dark.


      1. & so, I’m better off, for myself, tat least, to continue redefining all of the above. (beauty, sex, vulnerability, confidence, guarantees, the dark.) The difficulty, for myself, and for most, I’ll venture, is settling for anyone else’s definitions of such things. Many women know what someone else’s definitions feel like. That’s also why the article above– that prompted some of this, rings true to me. It is about discrimination.


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