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  • Christine Cohen Park

More Room at the Top

Just published in

Writing Magazine March 2024


For us older writers – I’m 81 – an article by Amelia Hill in the Guardian in the early spring of this year claiming that this was a good time for women writers in their 70s or even 80s to be attempting to get published was encouraging news indeed! Suddenly, apparently, it’s become sexy to be an older voice. ‘The distinct voice of the older woman is now seen as saleable’, commercial writer Anna Fordorova is quoted as saying. Aged 79, she’d found a receptive market for her first novel In The Blood which went on to become a best-seller. Joanna Quin, Nikki May, Shelley Read, Jo Browning Wroe, Louise Kennedy were some of the other women Hill cited who’d recently found success in later life.


Cherry Potts founder of Arachne Press explains, ‘There has been a sea change in publishers’ understanding and acceptance of older women’s experience and their voices.’ Lisa Highton, associate literary agent at Jenny Brown Associates suggests, ‘it’s almost an advantage to be coming into publishing for the first time at a senior age with an amazing story. The vast majority of books are bought by women aged 45 and above…they want to see themselves represented in books.’


Yippee.


I had some critical success with my early novels, so I’m not a new writer, but I am one who, due to circumstances, disappeared from the publishing scene for over two decades, and now, after five years of intensive work, research trips, and many drafts, am about to put my head above the parapet with a pertinent and urgent novel set in the Middle East against the backdrop of the Israel/Palestine conflict.


My experiences as a reader, both personally and professionally, chime with the claims Hill makes. When I retired from teaching at University, I trained as a Shared Reading facilitator. One of the groups I run is entering its fifteenth year. The group is predominantly female and retired. What do we want from our novels, and is it any different from what I myself want to engage me on trains, through sleepless nights and these winter days? We want to be absorbed, we want protagonists we care about, stories that open up new worlds, or give us fresh perspectives on familiar ones. Stories that makes us laugh, or cry, or both. Stories that make us think, reconsider. Stories that transport us out of our surroundings and enable us to touch on others’ experiences, whether it is half way round the world or in the adjoining street.


When it comes to contemporary fiction, unless the writing voice is unique – think Anna Burns’ The Milkman set in Northern Island, or Eimear McBridge’s innovative A Girl is a Half-formed Thing – we might veer away from a coming-of-age story, in favour of a writer with something almost imponderable but what I think of as wisdom. And because there seems so little of it about, in our politicians, in our leaders, especially as we get older, more than ever mature voices, voices of discernment, voices of balance and beauty in the way even the saddest of stories can be skilfully presented, are our first pick. I’m thinking of Rose Tremain’s The Road Home, Annie Dillard’s large-hearted The Maytrees, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, Marilynne Robinson’s luminous Home, to name just a few.


Older women writers can – not necessarily do – fit into that category. We have a great breadth of life to draw on, we have lived, we have watched, we have seen. We are likely to have had personal experiences of Wordsworth’s ‘emotion reflected in tranquillity.’ And if we are dedicated writers and are lucky enough to still have that vim, that necessary vitality to bring content alive on the page, if our voices continue to evolve with the times, to remain fluid, a vibrant tool, to not become ossified, dated  – then odds are, perhaps it is indeed a time for us.


I’ve kept the Guardian article on file since February as a totem to give me courage as I wrote the last chapters of my book. With bizarre timing, a mere week before the horrendous Hamas attacks on Israel citizens, followed by the deaths of thousands upon thousands of Palestinians, I completed it. And now am in the process of going out to agents, knowing I have something to say that is pertinent, that I have written an even-handed novel telling a part of the background to the current crisis from both sides.


Time to return to the substance of the article, to make a list of names. Ah, Arachne Press, whose founder Cherry Potts wrote so encouragingly. Their web page greets me with: ‘There are presently no open calls for submissions.’ What about Lisa Highton at Jenny Brown Associates? The submission page of their webpage announces that she is closed to new submissions at the moment.


At this point my fellow writers out there could surely be forgiven if we wonder quite what the enthusiasm spreading like a warm bath from the pages of that article actually adds up to! But here is the thing. Hundreds of thousands of writers every year ply the beleaguered trade with their submissions. Probably the article increased the number in these particular cases. It is not going to be easy for us. Now, as ever.  There is a huge competition and a book, be it novel or non-fiction has to rise to the top of it and find its mark. Luck enters into it, who you meet. But also persistence, good judgement, energy, professionalism, and finally most of all – quality.


If we have these things then we are able to make the most of the opportunities that living now, at a time ripe for older woman writers, presents. It’s probably only going to be a handful of us. But we’ve always been troupers, haven’t we? If you believe you have it in you, that you have a book worth publishing, you must go on trying. It just may happen.


So, my five tips to fellow older women writers are:

Read obsessively

Position yourself as a writer, and do so realistically

Create a writing circle: support means so much

In the tortuous journey towards landing that agent, that publisher, stop to laugh every now and again, it helps

In the end there is you and your craft, and your belief that you have something to say. Hold onto that – I’m telling myself, too.

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