How Old Is Too Old for a Main Character?

I wanted to dismiss the essay dissing aging heroines in the Jan. 26 New York Times Book Review, even though it was written by none other than Fay Weldon, one of my favorite novelists.

Titled "Writer of a Certain Age," Weldon says, in a nutshell, that when she teaches creative writing, she tells her students flat-out that, if they make the mistake of writing a book with a main character in her 50s, "she will find it hard to get a publisher. Her agent -- and these days, it will almost always be a woman -- will discourage her and suggest the protagonist's age be taken down 20, even 30 years."

I would have crumpled up that newspaper and tossed it into the fireplace except for one sad fact: My agent agrees with Weldon. As I talked over my novel-in-progress for Penguin with him a couple of weeks ago, I suggested starting the book from the point of view of a main female character who is close to 60 years old.

"Oh, I don't think you'd better do that," my agent warned. "Publishers don't like older characters. You'd better start with the younger woman's point of view."

Now, bear in mind that I adore my agent. He's one of the wisest and nicest men I've ever met in my life and I trust him completely. Still, I was nonplussed. Why shouldn't my book start with the point of view of a woman in her fifties?

Two of my favorite novels, Stewart O'Nan's Emily, Alone and Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, feature older women as protagonists, and both of those characters are wonderfully complicated women with fierce natures who are facing the universal human conflicts of grief, loss, love, mortality. In fact, those books inspired me to create one of the main characters in The Wishing Hill, 70-year-old Claire, who falls in love and is forced to begin living life in the present again after decades of mourning her past mistakes. It was liberating to write from the point of view of a woman that age who was, despite all of her past mistakes, ready to take new risks and move forward, embracing the changes in her life.

Yet, statistics support my agent's cautionary stance. When it comes to book buying, it's true that more women buy books than men, but it's also true that most book buyers are younger than 45, according to Bowker statistics. So the wisdom in publishing is that we novelists have to give those readers younger characters they can relate to, maybe. It also seems true that the literary world is populated with a lot of men who, like Tina Fey's famous joke about George Clooney, would rather float off into space than be caught with a woman their own age.

But why wouldn't readers of all ages relate to older women characters, as long as those characters are engaged in emotional conflicts, in mortal danger, chasing bad guys, or even hunting zombies? I think we're selling our readers short if we don't give them characters who have lived full lives, yet are ready to take on new challenges. Isn't that what we all hope to do in our own lives?

So I'm going to keep writing books with female characters of all ages. The older women are going to be just as brave, blood-thirsty, and lusty as their younger sisters and daughters, because in my experience, that's how women are.