October 10, 2018

A prize for writers debuting over the age of 50 is a satisfying middle finger to precocious novelists


Literary debuts favor the youth.

Photo via Adolfo Félix/Unsplash

While publishing your first book before the age of 30 has long been a mark of romantic distinction, it has in more recent times become oppressively so. 30 under 30, 20 under 40. But plenty of lauded writers and artists begin working later in life, or what I call the “39 and over club,” a hint perhaps at how much of a deadline 40 can feel. Consider our very own Marci Vogel, who this November will publish Death and Other Holidays, her debut work of fiction, at the age of 51.

We’d like to think that she joins an even more prestigious club, that of the late blooming debut writer, whose membership includes Toni Morrison at 39, Helen DeWitt at 41, Charles Bukowski at 51. And hey, the Bluest Eye, The Last Samurai, and Post Office are now all considered classics. But with a contemporary writer like Vogel, she faces of the challenge of making her name alongside seemingly precocious and most definitely perky fresh-out-da-MFA novelists and story writers, many of whom will likely be cited in reviews or profiles with the requisite phrase (at only the age of…). So what gives with the ageism and who is going to do something about it?

Well, go figure, it’s the British. In a piece for the GuardianGillian Slovo, the chair of the newly founded Royal Society of Literature Christopher Bland prize, for authors debuting over the age of 50, reiterated the need to recognize such a demographic:

“’Older writers’ raised the question of what, in an industry that is often obsessed with youth, would be considered old: Google this query and you will find writers over 30 bemoaning the fact that they will soon be over the hill,” Slovo writes. “[In] awarding a first novel or work of non-fiction published when the winner is 50 or older… we had worried about the quality of future entrants: what kind of writer, we wondered..would be eligible for such a prize?”

As Slovo notes, plenty of writers like Daniel Defoe (58) and Raymond Chandler (51) would both have been eligible. So to would the Prize’s namesake, Christopher Bland, a careerist chairman of institutions like The Royal Shakespeare Company, British Telecom, and the publishing house Canongate, who made his literary debut in his 70s. And Slovo, if you are reading this, and Americans are eligible, hit me up for a copy of Death and Other Holidays. Seriously.

Michael Barron is an editor at Melville House.