Visibility, Invisibility: Grey Hair Breaking Down the Wall

Karen Booth, the author, advocate for Seasoned Romance, and co-founder of the Seasoned Romance Facebook group has a new book coming out in February, and it is an important book. Have a look as the title and cover and you may understand why—if you are over the age of 40, you may, at last, feel seen.

Visibility and invisibility slot together with discussions about inclusion and diversity, which boil down to the need to be seen. In Karen’s upcoming seasoned romance, Gray Hair Don’t Care, visibility and invisibility hinge upon a full head of hair. For some women, grey hair is fraught with meaning that is usually not positive. In our society, many equate grey hair with with decline, particularly if you’re female. Women are told in subtle and not so subtle ways that grey hair signals the decline of not merely youth, but of desirability, of their worth as a human being.

Grey hair is a human being’s badge of successful living, a sure sign of age and ageing well. I say ‘ageing well’ because growing older, that is, not dying at a young age, is what humans seek. We search for ways we can exercise better to maintain our bodies, eat foods that may help us live longer. If you are female living longer, going grey, a perfectly natural aspect that comes with bypassing that early grave, is signposted as something ugly, as something shameful, as something to deny, cover up, to erase. I don’t know about you, but  I’m sick of that directive. While there is a growing backlash against covering one’s grey, the message that grey hair must be denied and dyed is powerful, deeply embedded in our culture, and it continues to, along with the plethora of anti-ageing products aimed at women, reinforce the notion that women and ageing do not go together. Sexism, ageism, and sexist, ageist practice is embedded in society and runs deep, so deep may people fail to notice it at all. This is why seeing a cover like Karen’s is so important. Many women will, at last, feel seen.

If you haven’t noticed how deep ageist practices go when it comes to women and grey hair, allow me to point out that you have most likely been indoctrinated to accept that a woman who has managed not to die and continues to live a long life is not a necessary depiction in advertising, on screen, or between the pages of a novel. Especially if she has grey or white hair. When an older ‘grey’ woman is represented it is in roles that cast her as secondary character, such as mother or grandmother, or, more often than not, as an ageist stereotype, such as cougar, lunatic, harpy, menopausal comic relief, or as sexless crone. Without realising, you have witnessed the regular ageist practice against women in advertising, film, and fiction, especially in romance fiction where older women are seldom seen, or not seen at all. You may not even notice that a male lead, the hero, is allowed to be the silver or grey fox, with distinguished grey temples, while a woman the same age, combined with the perceived ugliness of her grey hair, leads to devaluing and outright erasure.

Perhaps you are aware of this all because you are a woman who’s wondered why you no longer see other women like you in films, on TV, or in books. You may be a person of colour, or Muslim, or disabled, or fat and you want to see women who are like you, and you long to be represented. In this case, representation, visibility and invisibility comes down to the few hairs I’m splitting here, as you, if you read my pieces on ageism and romance fiction, would expect me to.

Karen and I share a few things. We are advocates for seasoned romance and women over the age of 40, and we have both written books that feature older women with grey or white hair as leads in romance fiction. The older female protagonist, or, as the genre prefers to call her, an older heroine, remains an anomaly in the genre. Still. I’ve been writing and studying older heroines in romance fiction for nearly two decades. Seven years ago, my second book, For Your Eyes Only, was published. It had taken me close to ten years to find a publisher who didn’t tell me I had to make my heroine younger. I was thrilled and so grateful that I had found an editor and a publishing house who were open to the idea of an older woman positioned as the heroine rather than as a secondary character or as a stereotype of a woman of a ‘certain age’. The silver foxy heroine in Karen’s Gray Hair Don’t Care is 47. The heroine in For Your Eyes Only is 50 and had white hair. Karen’s cover is gloriously representative of her heroine’s age. My cover is…well, as you can see, the victim of my publisher’s concern about my heroine’s advanced age. The cover model is 15 years younger and blonde rather than white-haired.

I should have fought harder for a different cover. I should have pushed and clawed for an image that conveyed that a white-haired, middle-aged woman was worthy of being a heroine on the cover, but there were a few things happening that prevented me from doing so. I was a new author, I had no clout, and, as I mentioned, my publisher was the only publisher willing to take a risk on a new author writing a heroine who sat outside the age norms of romance fiction.

Karen and I, as well as many other authors who have submitted books to romance fiction publishers, have faced the ageism and the ageist brick wall that exists within the industry. The brick wall often came—and still comes—in the form of statements such as, ‘we’re not sure how to market this book’ or ‘we don’t think there’s an audience for this book’ or ‘this book won’t sell unless you make the heroine younger’ or my favourite, ‘no one wants to read granny sex’. The way our culture has been conditioned to accept ageist practices as normal, feeds ongoing publishing concerns that putting a more ‘mature-aged’ woman on the cover would turn off readers, that a book featuring an image of woman with grey or white hair would not sell. Of course, any business would be apprehensive about a product that might not sell. No one wants to lose money. As I have said so many times before, film and fiction are actually losing out on making money by ignoring a specific population with money to spend. Being ignored as a consumer is one more form of invisibility.

Visibility and invisibility. Cover art comes and goes, from Fabio’s flowing tresses and drooping bodices to the current illustrated trend in romance fiction. If you didn’t know, many publishes use stock images to create cover designs, and this is where I admit I am not a huge fan of the illustrated cover. I’m also not a fan of a bare chest, the floating head shot over a country background, or the genre’s iconic clinch cover, yet it is obvious the illustrated cover solves issues that publishers find insurmountable, such as finding stock cover images to present curvy or fat heroines, disabled heroines, heroines of colour, heroines from non-western cultures, older heroines. It’s sad. It’s shameful in the way grey hair is not. It’s exasperating as hell. Things have changed a little in the last 2 years, but what’s out there is merely OK. It needs to be better. While silver foxy men are a cinch to find, peruse stock image companies for older women and you’ll find lots of attractive middle-aged women touching their faces. Search for mature couples and you’ll see lots of picnics.

As Karen notes in her cover reveal for Gray Hair, Don’t Care, rather than face the frustration of wrestling with the ingrained preconception romance fiction editors and CEOs have about grey-haired women, or trying to find a decent stock image, she decided to indie publish Gray Hair Don’t Care and commission a cover artist. That was one smart move. While Karen addresses, directly, the embedded ageist notions represented by a woman with grey hair, I went in a different direction when it came to choosing cover images for my indie releases, the In Service series about a middle-aged female butler and the spy who loves her. I decided to lean into the vector silhouette images one might find in spy fiction because of how incredibly difficult it is to find stock images of middle-aged women. I knew what I was up against. Then again, so did indie author Maggie Christensen. Publishers who adhere to the notion that a woman aged 40+ has no business being on a cover have their arses squarely kicked by Maggie, a Scotswoman living in Australia. When it comes to her seasoned romance covers and heroines, she knows her audience, writes fabulous romance fiction featuring women 40+, and Maggie puts those more grown-up women on her book covers, using the same style as romance novels featuring women in their 20s.

Maggie, like Karen, Natasha Moore, Maggie Wells, Kristen Ashley and I sell books and garner great reviews from readers who have sought out seasoned romance with more grown up heroines, older female leads, mature female protagonists whatever you want to call women over 40 who are the main characters.

What makes me most cranky about this ongoing struggle with sexist ageism is that publishers are ignoring readers. Readers responding to Karen’s cover reveal ought to be evidence enough that older women want to see themselves reflected in the books they read. Visibility and invisibility. There are two things at stake here: the inclusion and representation of women of all ages on book covers and between the pages, whatever colour their hair might be, and instead of publishers telling authors that books with grey-haired women on the cover won’t sell, perhaps it’s time to take note of how readers have been ignored for far too long. I say this because, at the online Romance Writers of Australia (RWAus) conference I attended last weekend, the same editor who once told me that no one wanted to read granny sex also stated that authors were the ones pushing for seasoned romance. I believe, wholeheartedly, that this editor is wrong. As an author and as a reader, I’d like to point out that readers are driving the call for older heroines, for seasoned romance. Readers make up the overwhelming majority of the 3K+ Seasoned Romance Facebook group, as well as the nearly 2K membership of Romance In Her Prime. It is readers who are searching for heroines who look like they do—women with greying or grey hair, crow’s feet, with lines on their faces, life experience and the baggage that comes with it. It comes down to visibility and invisibility, to representation and inclusion. It’s obvious that publisher demographic studies, like so much advertising market research, fails to include older people, especially older women in their investigations or even take them into account as consumers—unless it’s for cruises, funeral insurance, or osteoarthritis relief. In their endeavour to make money, companies seek out the next generation of consumers, dropping the consumers they may already have, which in this case are readers. Romance readers, the editor at last weekend’s RWAus conference said, read down, meaning they read about younger characters, but this is only so because there are so few books like Karen’s, like mine, that offer older readers, grey-haired or not, the visibility they crave.

My books with silver, white, & grey haired heroines are available here and here. Karen Booth’s Gray Hair Don’t Care is out in February 2021. It’s now available for preorder. It’s going to be huge, the book that breaks through and breaks down the wall for seasoned romance.

And it’ll be because of flowing grey hair.

Return of the Return of A Little Help From My Romance Reading Friends

Dear Reader,

Once again, you with your finger on the pulse of romance, your eyes on the words and covers and spines of books of paper, screen, and audio. I come to you asking for your help. It’s four years since I post titled A Little Help From My Romance Reading Friends and I come to you to tell me about the Romance novels you have read where both leads are over the age of 40, especially novels you have read where the heroine is aged OVER 40 — or over  50, 60, and beyond.  It’s time to update the list I keep on this site, and I need your help to do this because I am only one tiny woman with a TBR pile and books to edit and books to write about a middle-aged Irish butler and the British spy who loves her.

At the same time, I want to share a few lists with you, mostly because I am pleased to say there are many readers (and authors like me) who are looking for Seasoned Romance, a fact about readers I point out over and over. Now, whether you call it Seasoned Romance (as I and many others do) Later in Life Romance (as the Book Industry BISAC codes does), Adult Contemporary Romance, MidRom, Older Romance, MatRom, Vintage Rom, (rest assured, I will bite you if you call it HenRom, GrannyRom or HagRom), these readers want ALL THE ROMANCE, these readers want books with lead characters falling for each other and all the glorious, complex, baggage-filled mess that goes with it, the Big Misunderstanding, the (however much I despise them) Secret Baby, Enemies to Lovers, Friends to Lovers, the Marriage of Convenience, these readers want ALL THE familiar tropes you love, and maybe even hate, these readers want the romance to feature main characters aged 40 and over (although some are happy with 35 and over).

I’m like these readers, but I want the romance (and other genre fiction) I read to feature a female protagonist, a heroine, aged 40 and beyond. For the list of books I keep here, I focus on representation of women over 40. Why 40? Because, like in Hollywood 40 is some kind of invisible line for women. Women under 40 get roles, but hit 40 and they dry up. Plus, I’m tired (aren’t you) of the sexist, ageist older man-younger pairing that is the staple of Hollywood and, let’s face it, most kinds of fiction.

My very personal mission, if you’ve never come across my writing before, is to present women of a certain age in the genre of fiction that has a history of being oh-so-young, cis and white. I want to draw attention that there are older romance readers who, for example, like WOC, are more than damn ready to see themselves reflected in the genre they love. This is about visibility. Older women, across cultures and ethnicities, deserve and need to be written back into the narrative of life and fictional tales. Fiction, film, TV, and advertising hold the power to make older women visible. However, there are impediments still in place, sticky impediments. There is proof of a growing market and sub-genre, not a damn niche, and lists like these can clear way the cobwebs that still obscure some publishers’ minds, and show them the vibrancy of older women.

Yeah, okay, there are romance publishers who are open to older heroines, but, at the same time, limit their idea of the ‘field of older’ to somewhere between the ages of 35 to 45, because books with women older than 35 “won’t sell”, or, as one editor said to me (yes, I’m dragging out that comment again), “No one wants to read granny sex.”  Remarks of that sort may seem business savvy, but remarks of that sort (besides being bullshit) highlight and perpetuates the inherent ageist and sexist attitude that older women aren’t attractive, sexual, or interested in sex, which implies women over 45 are lesser, other, unworthy of love, and their hideousness must continue to be sidelined, hidden, or kept out of the narrative that favours white cis women. You see how ridiculous and prejudicial the practice is, and how important book lists can be to change business practices, to make them diverse as they claim they want to be.

Booklists, and readers I come across looking for booklists of seasoned romance, are proof that the books can and do sell, even the ones with the granny sex in them. Have a gander at the list I already have—and then add these Goodreads books lists to it:

https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/99966.Seasoned_Romance

https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/21311.Best_older_hero_AND_older_heroine_romance_books_the_main_couple_has_to_be_over_40_

https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/124121._Seasoned_Romance_35_Love_

https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/47427.Romance_Heroes_and_Heroines_Over_35_

https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/111722.Romance_In_Her_Prime

https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/135818.Hot_Romance_or_Erotica_w_30_s_to_40_s_Something_Heroines_

Since 2016, when I first began to ask for help, there have been titles released by traditional and indie authors, yet any author will tell you DISCOVERABILITY IS KEY to readers finding new authors and titles, especially in an overlooked sub-genre like Seasoned Romance. If YOU are keen to add books to my list of romance fiction featuring main characters over 40 — again, I’m looking for both leads to be over 40, not just the silver foxy hero because heroines can be silver foxy too — Shoot those titles my way! Help me add to my list of and all these other lists. Let me be even more specific about my personal book list, should you want me to add your book suggestions to it. I’m after Romance, not Women’s Fiction. In Women’s Fiction there’s often an element of romance, but the lovey-dovey stuff isn’t the primary focus. In ROMANCE the story is driven by a couple on a journey to find love, rather than, as you frequently find in Women’s Fiction, a woman’s journey of self-discovery or tale of women’s friendship and/or relationship with friends and family.

That nitty gritty bit out of the way, PLEASE, leave your book recommendations as a comment, or tell me about a book list that you know that I have not included. Allow me to reiterate: Booklists, and readers I come across looking for booklists of seasoned romance, are proof that the books can and do sell, even the ones with the granny sex in them.

Thank you!

Love,

Sandra

 

Calling All Readers: What Do We Call It and How Do We Do it?

For years, I’ve been writing for an overlooked audience. Now, finally, I’m writing for a slowly emerging market, one a few publishers are, after years of ignoring, only just beginning to cater to. Despite the presence of a target audience, that is readers over 40,  two stumbling blocks remain when it comes to marketing romance fiction to readers over 40: WHAT to call this subgene, and HOW to market romance with older couples.

The WHAT: The front-running suggestions for this romance subgenre (Thank you, Laura Boon Russell for reminding me to mention that this is a subgenre), from those of us who write romance fiction with lead characters over 40, have been Adult Contemporary Romance, Seasoned Romance, Mature Romance (MatRom), and Silver Romance. The new category line from Entangled is called August, which is a charming moniker, but the line is limited to stories of characters 35-45. Now, here’s where you come in. Do you have any ideas of WHAT to call romance fiction with both lead characters who are over 40?

If you do, leave a comment. Better still leave a comment about the search terms you use when you go looking for romance tales where both characters have been around the block a time or two? You as a reader have the power to pick the name that REALLY sticks.

Groovy, say we come up with a consensus on a name for this subgenre, for Romance of a Certain Age, Granny Lit or Hag Lit, (Can we agree now NOT use any of those?), but what about the HOW?

HOW to market these books is fraught with the same issues Hollywood has when it comes to marketing any film featuring a woman over 40 as the lead. Artwork and advertising, which in the publishing world means book covers, can be tricky for a tale with younger leads. A book cover, like a movie poster, is supposed to be shorthand for the story presented. Marketing departments for Romance fiction have always found a way to work around finding cover art for troublesome novel, usually steering clear of the stereotypical clinch cover in favour of something benign, such as a pair of shoes, a dog, an empty Adirondack chair sitting on a beach. In Hollywood, the usual thinking is:

  1. If the older woman appears on the advertising, be sure the image includes an object that obscures her age, such as a coffee cup in front of her face;
  2. If the older woman appears on the movie poster, ensure only a small percentage of her body is shown, no full body shots;
  3. Reduce the size of the woman’s image, place her in the background in a setting, such as on a dock, on a boat, behind Bruce Willis or Morgan Freeman. Seriously. Go look at this poster for Red, right now.

Obviously, in fiction and film there’s a similar workaround showing the ageing body, which is primarily horrifying because ageing and the bodies of older people are continually presented as ugly and something to fear. These images lead to an unconscious bias against older people, particularly older women, and that bias keeps women from appearing roles other than mother, granny, harpy, crone, or keeps them from appearing at all. ON book covers and movie posters.

The chief antidote to treating ageing as a disease is to present it as normal, as everyday, but creating a new standard and breaking down pervasive image stereotypes of age—or any stereotype—takes time. People need to ‘get used to’ something new. I understand starting small, put the aged female face behind that coffee cup a few times, or reduce the size of Mary-Lousie Parker and Helen Mirren on the poster for Red. Use those benign beach-front images that suggest peace, use the dog, the shoes. Then, slowly, because, people need time to adjust to change, get rid of the coffee cup, enlarge the size of the woman, move her to the foreground, right beside the acceptable male silver fox in that Adult Contemporary-Seasoned-Mature-Silver-August Romance.

Shyness and The Art of ‘Verting’: Intro, Extro, Ambi

Shyness is not introversion. There are those who mistake introversion for shyness.

NextToYou CoverfinalShyness often occurs in new situations or with unfamiliar people. There’s a sense of apprehension, awkwardness, and a lack of comfort. Shy people may avoid social situations entirely.

In Next to You (see what I did there? A COVER REVEAL) It’s easy to mistake Caroline for shy. She has a sense of apprehension about moving back to Chicago, feels awkward, displays a lack of comfort, hesitates in social situations — and for good reason. No, I’m not telling you why because spoilers. However Caroline is anything but shy. Caroline is an introvert — like a lot of my fellow authors.

I’m not an introvert. I’m not an extrovert. I leave extrovert to my husband. He draws energy from social interaction.  So then, what am I? What is Caroline?

Moetball

  Move over Grace Kelly

Story time! Last year I went to the Moet and Chandon Black and White Ball.  I got all dolled up in strapless black satin, did my hair like Grace Kelly, and put on eye makeup. I even wore a pair of pantyhose that were supposed to give my shapeless, flat ass shape. I looked good and I was ready to have a glamorous evening with men in dinner suits and women in splendid finery.

The fun of going to the ball with my dashing Dr Shrinkee husband lasted seven and a half minutes–the length of time it took us to get from the front of the building, have our photo snapped by some local magazine, and ascend the grand staircase to the ballroom.

Don’t know about you, but the word ballroom fills me with images of high ceilings, chandeliers, a dance floor, banquet tables… Despite the lack of a high ceiling, all those other things were there. Also present in the ballroom were seventy-five bajillion guests. It was wall-to-wall people and three bands, all using giant speakers, meaning it was crowded AND loud. No, wait. It was deafening.

After twenty minutes I was overwhelmed. My husband was IN his social butterfly element.

I’m what you’d call an Ambivert. I’m comfortable with groups and social interaction, but I need time away from the crowd to renew my energy. To be honest, my comfort level with groups reaches its limit at 6 people. I don’t like loud noises. A crush of seventy-five bajillion people and a wall of sound (not disco-ball-727116_1920the Phil Spector music kind) wiped away my ambivertedness and transformed me into an introvert. It was loud EVERYWHERE. People were everywhere. Even the ladies room was packed. There was no place I could go to restore my psyche. For the rest of the evening, I did the only thing I could to save what Carl Jung would have called my my ‘mental energy’. I stood with my back to the wall, behind a speaker, with tissue stuffed in my ears, a deer in black satin caught in the twinkly, spinning lights of a disco ball. Acquaintances shouted small talk in my face. Nice men in dinner suits tried to get me to dance. People stepped on my feet.

This was an extreme case where I became an introvert, and for the next week, my very extroverted husband had to answer questions or field comments regarding his ‘shy’ wife at the ball.

Again, shyness is not introversion.

While being in such a large crowd of people made me apprehensive, while I was so far out of my comfort zone it surprised my husband, like Caroline. I do not have a social phobia. Sure, my social skill isn’t the greatest, and I can be awkward when there are more than 6 people at a dinner party, but I don’t fear rejection. I don’t care what people think of me. I don’t worry about being humiliated. I do not avoid social contact. I have friends. I enjoy the company of others. I can carry on a conversation. Although my ‘vert’ may shift in some situations, like when there are seventy-five bajillion people, I am not shy.

Neither is Caroline.

Next to You comes out on 25 July. You can read the first chapter on Wattpad for free.