Have You Been “Gray Listed”?
By Ron Benrey
Whether you call it ageism, age discrimination, or “gray listing,” the idea is simple – a novel is rejected by an agent or editor because of the author’s age, not because of the manuscript’s lack of publishability.
The author will usually have no idea this has happened, because ageism in publishing is tricky to pin down. The decision to reject a manuscript is based on so many factors that the writer’s age may be just one more consideration that enters an agent or editor’s mind. Or, it may be factor Number One. That’s why ageism – if it exists – is an insidious threat to gray-haired novelists.
Writers don’t talk much about ageism in Christian publishing. Last month we taught classes and workshops at the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers’ Conference and met dozens of yet-to-be published novelists over the age of 50. They had questions about plotting, voice, and point of view – but not one asked if his or her age would impact the evaluation of their work by agents, editors, and publishers.
Things are different out west. Everyone knows that age discrimination against writers runs rampant in Hollywood, that scriptwriters past 40 (some say 30!) have a tough time selling their work – especially new scriptwriters. Nine years ago, the film industry’s systematic ageism was challenged via class-action lawsuits brought against agencies and studios. In 2008, a group of writers reached a hefty settlement with a few defendants.
I used to believe that American publishing in general (and Christian publishing in particular) were free of ageism. After all, Janet and I were late-blooming Christian novelists. We were both over 50 when we completed and sold Little White Lies, our first Christian mystery, about a decade ago. Back then, no one seemed concerned that we belonged to AARP. Moreover, a study of multi-published Christian novelists conducted about five years ago, found that roughly 15 percent had published their first novel after age 50.
These days, I’m more pessimistic. Quiet conversations with agents and editors have changed my mind. I’m not quite certain whether increasing concern about a writer’s age is a new phenomenon or an old one that I failed to notice. Whatever my perspicacity, age discrimination seems to be alive and well in some corners of Christian publishing.
When you think about it, the age of an author shouldn’t matter a whit, because every novel must stand on its own: a manuscript is good enough to be published, or it isn’t. And if it is publishable, why should anyone care how old a writer put the words on paper?
Readers certainly don’t care. It’s easy to point to many best-selling novelists who began writing later in life or wrote into their old age: Raymond Chandler wrote his first Philip Marlowe mystery when he was 51. Agatha Christie wrote into her 70s, while James Michener and Tony Hillerman wrote successfully into their 80s. And Helen Hooven Santmyer was a late-late-blooming 88 years old when her first novel — “And Ladies of the Club” — was published and became a best-seller in 1984.
Unfortunately, this common sensical outlook doesn’t always apply in the real world of publishing. The publishing industry’s fine tradition of nurturing late-blooming novelists has been overtaken in some corners by the logic, if you can call it that, that younger authors are to be preferred because they:
Have a longer writing career ahead of them, and thus are more likely to “repay” an agent’s, editor’s, or publisher’s efforts to develop them.
Are more flexible and willing to take direction than “set in their ways” Senior Citizens
Are less “needy” and/or “aggressive” than older writers (Yes! I’ve heard both claims.)
Understand publishing better than older newcomers who won’t take the time to learn the industry’s realities and the challenges
Are more adept with current technology than computer-challenged “old fogies” who can barely send emails.
Because these “criticisms” are based on stereotypes, they are easy to shoot down – even the first: These days, a “writing career” at a specific publishing house often consists of three or four books, something that many 75-year-old writers can accomplish. The simple truth is that editors and agents move on, and so do novelists. Moreover, a single blockbuster novel will make everyone happy, even if the author doesn’t live long enough to write another.
But there are other blasts at older novelists that do hit home:
Their whole approach to writing fiction – their voice, their world view, their sensibilities – may be “stuck” in the 1960s
They simply “don’t get” the younger people they write about
They cling to obsolete language rather than write with contemporary idioms and slang
They don’t understand the impact of modern technology on the stories they tell
They don’t understand what goes on inside modern companies and workplaces
They may be less attuned to the issues and storylines that appeal to younger readers
If any of these things is true about a novel written by a late-blooming author, the manuscript isn’t truly publishable. Janet or I would reject it, and we’d expect a sensible editor to do the same. But here it’s the manuscript that’s earned the rejection – not the novelist.
Janet and I enjoy working with other late-blooming writers. When we developed the content for our upcoming Fiction After 50® seminar (www.fictionafter50.com), we spent considerable time thinking about ageism – and how to respond to it.
One approach adopted by some novelists is to “disguise” their ages until after agents and publishers express interest in the manuscripts. And so, they don’t publish their photos on websites and they don’t write author bios that make it easy to guess age (e.g. “I earned my bachelor’s degree in 1965”).
The trouble is, the very act of hiding age signals that you have something to hide.
Janet and I finally concluded that the best response is to make age discrimination “unprofitable.” This means that older authors must write better manuscripts than their younger colleagues. Gray-haired novelists need to produce novels that scream to be published — novels that make the ages of their author irrelevant.
We may never know whether Christian agents, Christian editors, and Christian publishers are prone to “gray listing,” but can be certain that they’re pragmatists at heart. Really good Christian fiction will get published.
Ron Benrey, the author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Christian Fiction,” has co-written nine romantic suspense novels with his wife Janet. Last year he joined the literary agency that she founded, Benrey Literary.
Ron and Janet have developed a new seminar program called Fiction After 50® that is designed to help late-blooming novelists write publishable fiction and market their manuscripts to publishers. For more information on their books and seminar, visit www.benrey.com.