Older Writers

Last year one of my tutors opened hr class with the immortal line (delivered in a Louisiana drawl) “I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately.”

To paraphrase her, I’ve been thinking about age a lot lately. I’m exactly three months from my birthday, which will see me enter another decade. There’s a lot of unemployment in most countries, and despite the fact that ageism is theoretically illegal in the UK, most employers still have a residual favouritism toward employing younger workers, using code phrases such as ‘energetic.’  (I don’t know whether this is the case in the US as well.) Even assuming that I graduate, unless I unearth a best-seller in the next two years, I face a gap of eight to thirteen years when I graduate when I will probably need some kind of salaried position to supplement the erratic earnings of writing SF.

You’d assume that self-employed writers would be immune to such trends, but there are worrying signs with the recession squeezing publishers on all fronts.

Established writers running into problems selling their new novels is a phenomenon that’s been rumbling away for years. John Brunner found his career stalled in 1983 after a period away; before his death in 2000, Keith Roberts railed against the difficulty of selling his new works.  Both of those authors, however, had the reputation of being ‘difficult.’

More recently, Norman Spinrad has vociferously expressed his frustration at being unable to find a US publisher for his latest novel. Spinrad is two years short of celebrating 50 years in SF, has an enthusiastic French following, and has been a multiple Hugo and Nebula finalist — but significantly, never a winner. Spinrad is 70 next month.

James Gunn expressed similar frustration -but with considerably more dignity- a few months ago in an interview with Albedo One. This is a man who was made a Grand Master by SFWA three years ago, but he can’t sell his new novel in the US. Gunn is 87 years old.

It’s eminently possible that their problems have nothing to do with age, but more to do with their work being of insufficient interest to readers to hit break-even numbers in these commercially constrained times. But it would be interesting to know the average age of those editors who turned them down. Even more interestingly, how much of a factor is the likely length of their career? (Publishers are less and less interested in single-book deals, but rather in multi-book deals)  

We’ll never know, of course. But I feel a wholly illogical indignation on their behalf — these are giants of my youth, and deserve a little respect.  

But there’s no arguing with the cold logic of the marketplace, and I’m in no position to really complain, since I sold my break-out novel at 48.

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• August 11th, 2010 • Posted in General • Comments: 0