Why Is Your Younger Self Perceived As Your Better Self?

Last night, as part of the upcoming online Romance Writers of Australia conference, I sat on a panel of romance authors and editors who were also academics and scholars in romance fiction. We talked about our experiences as doctoral students and the challenges some of us faced when we submitted proposals to critically investigate romance fiction, a genre that was, for far too long, not taken seriously or considered less-than worthy of study. Things have gotten better in academia. We academic types and scholars studying the genre are being taken seriously now, more seriously than women over the age of 40 appearing as lead characters in romance novels are.

Reminiscing with the panel, and my frustration with the ongoing sexist ageism in the romance genre, reminded me of a conversation I once had with another romance fiction author about my romance novels being taken seriously. We talked at a conference for writers, back when I was a fledgling grad student and author on the cusp of being published. Our discussion focused on the age of romance heroines and how they have traditionally been young women, usually under 35. At the time, this author assured me that my writing was good, but she was adamant about two things: romance readers wanted to read about younger women because the springtime womanhood bloom of love was an essential part to the fantasy of romance, and a fundamental part of the traditional structure of romance fiction. She said that, if I was serious about being published, if I wanted to sell lots of books, I’d need to make my heroines younger.

The idea that younger women were essential to the romance fantasy, the ‘springtime’ issue of a female’s fertility being fundamental to falling in love (sorry for the alliteration), was an issue I addressed in my masters and doctoral work. I’m still addressing that notion now. We know fertility is not fundamental to falling in love. The only fundamental here is risk-averse publishers telling authors that books outside the ‘traditional’ parameters of romance “won’t sell”, or that no one wants to read granny sex, y, or z.

The panel, recollecting what that author and a few romance fiction editors have said about younger being essential to the romance novel, reminded me about a blog post I once ready by author Fay Weldon, best known perhaps for her novel The Life and Loves of a She Devil.

Have you ever seen She Devil, the Meryl Streep/Roseanne Barr adaptation? It’s kind of fun and at the same time not fun. It’s basically a story of revenge. What’s fun and not fun for me in the film, is how Meryl is a pink-wearing romance novelist prone to flouncing and histrionics—you know, that glorious Barbara Cartland-eque stereotype of romance novels and writers that still gets volleyed about, which, of course, adds to the genre not being taken seriously. Meryl, as usual, does a stellar job and makes a shallow, self-absorbed, horrid woman more than a caricature in frothy pink, but back to Weldon and all the recollecting. I went and dragged out my resource files, also known as Ageist Shit That Pissed Me Off and I Will Write About Someday.

Obviously, that someday is today.

Weldon, who teaches creative writing, has a section on her website that offers writing tips for authors. One particular post asks What Age Are You Characters? The piece mentions that if you want to be publishable it is important to keep the age of your characters in mind because, as Weldon states,

“readers come in all sizes, sexes, shapes and ages, but all prefer their novels to feature young women rather than old.”

ALL? Really? Ooooh! I love a good sweeping generalisation as much as I love flouncy pink-clad stereotypes of romance authors, don’t you? Stereotypes and generalisations always seem to go hand in hand with ageism and romance fiction, don’t they? Weldon also gives this advice:

“Get your juvenile lead on the front page: lure the reader in. 25 works better than 35, 35 than 45 – after 50, forget it.”

Which is quite similar to what the author said to me at the writers’ conference, but the thing in Weldon’s post that really chaps my hide is how she believes readers…

“…prefer to identify with themselves when young, not as they are now, in the days when they were sexually active, agile of limb, and not afraid of adventure.”

Okay then. I prefer to see myself as I am, to identify with characters who are of a similar age to me, not younger than me. Personally, I am affronted by the notion which assumes that, as I age, I will no longer be adventurous or that I will be afraid of something new. I fully expect to still be curious and adventurous about a range of things as I get along in years, despite how poorly ageing is portrayed and presented in advertising, film, and fiction that favours younger people as better. Why, I continue to wonder, is your younger self perceived to be your better self? I don’t want to be 25, I don’t want to watch or read about characters who are 20 very often, and I don’t think my 20s were my best days—they were far from my best anything. This notion that gold-plates your 20s also shoves down our throats the notion that women over 40 have ‘seen better days,’ that her best days are behind her. Might this be because, as Weldon notes,

“Publishers, who these days tend to turn away novels by middle aged women about middle aged women on the grounds that they are depressing, are probably wise to do so.”

Are older women depressing? Are their stories depressing? Or are women middle-aged and older just written that way? Frankly, when you read a lot of books and watch a lot of films and TV, you notice that older women are absolutely written that way. Younger women are viewed happy and as essential, while older women are constantly cast and represented in roles that are negative, that are depressing, frightening, secondary, non-essential.

If a young heroine is seen by many as an essential aspect in romance, and, as Weldon suggests, other forms of genre fiction as well, I’m gonna throw this a random thought. Could it be that, perhaps, one reason romance fiction may not have been taken seriously is not only because it is often written by women, and therefore a lesser form of writing, but it is also due to heroines having a long history of being overwhelmingly young women? Young women are often not taken seriously due their perceived lack of life experience. At the same time, older women cease to be taken seriously due to their experience, end of fertility, and depressing natures. Ageism swings both ways when you are female.

I understand fledgling writers want advice, fledgling writers take creative writing courses, undertake postgraduate degrees, attend conferences, search the web for guidance, and take heed of what successful writers and writer-teachers have to say. And lots of author-teachers have stuff to say. Here’s where I mention that, in my undergrad days, I had a creative writing teacher who had a one very successful book that lots of high school kids had to read and had been made into a well-received film. His big serious advice was to tell us all A writer must to suffer to write well.

I withdrew from his class because I wasn’t into suffering as much as I was using my imagination to tell a story.

My point is, it’s time to toss out shitty advice like suffering to be a good writer, time to retire ageist advice that demeans, time to take women of all ages seriously—as we have finally begun to take seriously the romance genre and the academic-scholar types who choose to study it.

Thank you to PhD candidate, Rachel Bailey, Dr Laurie Ormond, Dr Amy T Matthews, and Dr Michelle Douglas for inspiring this ranty post.

 

Weldon, F. (2020).What age are your characters? https://fayweldon.co.uk/writing-tip/what-age-are-your-characters/ Retrieved 21 July, 2020.

 

 

 

Diversity and the Hidden Value of Ageism: A Weird Theory? Maybe.

Last weekend, I attended the Romance Writers of Australia conference in Melbourne, Australia. To be honest, I didn’t attend this conference with the intention of participating in workshops or sessions that would help me further my career as an author as much as I did to be present at a panel session about Diversity. This session was a long time coming and, frankly, well overdue. The author-panel was made up of a Queer woman, a Black woman, an Asian woman, while the moderator was a white woman who happens to be Chair of the Writers Board of South Australia, as well as an academic currently examining intersections of race and gender in historical romance.

I sat right up front. The panellists were all romance writers, and I was interested in what it was, or is, like for those members of the panel to be, or have been, overlooked as a leads, incorrectly portrayed, rendered to stereotypes or rendered invisible.

If you follow the ranty Sandra Soapbox Mature Content Stockpile stuff I usually post here, what the panel discussed may sound rather like what I ranty Sandra Soapbox about. That’s because being overlooked as a lead, incorrectly portrayed, rendered to stereotypes or rendered invisible it is exactly what I ranty Sandra Soapbox about. All the time.

Imagine then, how pleased I was when, at the start of the panel, slides popped up to INCLUDE AGE AS AN ISSUE OF DIVERSITY! My research and the Seasoned Romance subgenre got a little shout out. I kinda wanted to jump up and down when I saw the slides. I wanted to jump up and down—while simultaneously hiding under my chair because I’m an introvert and everyone was looking at me. But holy shit, there was a nod to my research (Thank you, Amy), and a slide that mentioned my work on the sexist ageism entrenched in the romance fiction industry, and the quote included that line I keep repeating on this blog, the “no one wants to read granny sex,” comment that shows how the industry overlooks, incorrectly portrays, renders to stereotypes or renders invisible.

I felt so validated, yet at the same time, I admit, if that nod hadn’t happened, despite my introversion, I was quite prepared to stand up on a chair (because I am short) and make sure that the room full of people knew WHY it was important to include age in the discussion of diversity, but I didn’t want to hijack the panel. It was vital to hear Renee Dahlia, Nicole Hurley-Moore and MV Ellis convey their experiences, give their opinions, give a history lesson on whitewashing and yellow face, on being portrayed as victims and villains, of having history erased—and then leave room for questions, to generate discussion from the floor, to open eyes and get RWAus authors to think about how they write whole real, human characters of colour, characters of different ethnicities, LGBTQ+ characters when the author is none of those things.

Some people just don’t quite get it, and an hour-long panel discussion plus a short Q&A isn’t enough to educate or have that lightbulb moment. However, I am not under a time constraint here. I can take more time to explain and offer a theory to those who still don’t get why this is important, to those who believe they can’t empathise or identify with or see their life reflected in a Black, Asian, or Queer hero or heroine. It’s because you are a cis, straight, white woman and have never experienced what it is like to be anything other than what you are since you have never—or rarely—seen anything other than what you have been conditioned to see because you have never been excluded from having your story, your truth, your life portrayed. This is what you need to know: One day, perhaps sooner than you think, you are probably going to experience ageism. You are going to experience what it is like to suddenly be seen as “other” and fade into the background or be erased from your own future. If you cannot fathom what it is like to be excluded or erased on the basis of your ethnicity, your skin colour, your gender identity, or your sexual identity, Ageism is there to help you understand.

Wielding my Shield of Smartass

I’m going to make a bold statement and say I have a theory. I believe the key to understanding the need for diversity and inclusion may lie within the framework of ageism—the last acceptable prejudice. Ageism affects everyone. Why? Regardless if you are Black, Asian, White, Queer, Straight, Transgender, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, male, female, transgender, non-binary, ageism is an equal opportunity prejudice. Ageism excludes, renders to stereotypes, and erases. Ageism has a greater, often more obvious impact on women than men; after a certain age, women are more quickly stereotyped, side-lined, devalued as human beings, and rendered invisible. Sound familiar? Do you see the connection?

Ageing is an inescapable fact of life. I am getting older. So are you. You have seldom seen anything other than what you have been conditioned to see. I whole-heartedly believe we need to change what has always been presented as the norm because in reality it IS NOT the norm. Life is not all one colour, ethnicity, or one sex. It never has been. If you don’t think change is necessary, if you don’t want a better reflection of actual humanity, then keep reading your young, cis, het, white leads, the ones you say you can empathise and identify with, and will probably escape back to when you see your older self incorrectly portrayed, rendered to stereotypes or rendered invisible.

Let me know how that works for you.