Television news is a young person’s game.
I first heard that assertion from my broadcast journalism professors and class advisors, and then later from workshop presenters at national industry conferences. The statement was an undercurrent that gradually grew into a drumbeat for us who toiled as young reporters at stations in small town America. We were encouraged by our colleagues and mentors to keep our resumes and news clips up to date in anticipation of moving every year or so to an incrementally larger and better paying news market. The goal was to reach our “destination station” with its requisite prestige, prime time newscast slot, and comfortable salary as quickly as possible, especially if we were women.
The cautionary tales were all around us. When I was hired by my first station in Champaign, Illinois, there were murmurs around the newsroom that the female anchor of our evening newscast was involved in tense negotiations with management over her contract. For years she’d had her multiyear contract renewed without a problem, I was told. This time around management wanted to give her only a one-year extension. In the TV news business, it’s common knowledge that a one-year contract extension is a station’s way of hurrying you out the door so that you can be replaced with someone younger and/or cheaper. The news anchor was in her mid-30s at the time. Many of us in the newsroom had no doubt that in the eyes of management she had aged out, this in spite of the fact that her male counterpart on the anchor desk was at least 15 years her senior and continued to be offered multiyear contracts.
At another station, the female morning news anchor, in her late 40s to early 50s could not convince management to move her to the evening newscast, the more coveted time slot. She started looking elsewhere. We knew this because calls came into the newsroom from other station managers wanting to check her references. She was eventually let go during a station reorganization.
At my last station, before I decided to quit television journalism to pursue work at a nonprofit, tense moments ensued when the evening anchor returned from maternity leave to resume her duties that had been handled during her absence by a much younger female. For weeks following the more senior woman’s return, she would ignore her co-worker’s overtures for conversation and exchanges of pleasantries. I saw this episode as an illustration of the fears women in broadcasting feel of easily being replaced. Years later, in an unrelated development, several of the on-air women sued the station for age discrimination.
During my 10 years in television I came to know that the TV newsroom was a pressure cooker for a multitude of reasons, and for women, age is one of the biggest. It’s like a ticking clock that begins to resemble a time bomb as the years pass.
Now with that chapter of my life behind me but always near my consciousness, I can’t help but contrast that experience with my entering the world of publishing as an author. I have seen the attention the literary world gives to young authors, the lists of contests, grants, and awards highlighting and touting the accomplishments of writers in the early years of their adult life. I’ve skimmed the headlines—Buzzfeed’s “20 under 40 Debut Writers You Need to be Reading,” Bustle’s “25 Books Written by Women under 25,” Goodreads’ “Authors Under 30,” and Poets & Writers’ “30 Below” contest and many others.
A 2010 survey conducted by fantasy novelist Jim C. Hines in which he found that the average age for novelists to make their publishing debuts was 36 to 37 is often sited when aspiring authors are looking for a benchmark.
But to my relief, I have not seen signs of favoritism of youth and ageism in the literary world when it comes to aspiring authors of a mature age—over the age of 40—pursuing book publication.
The list of well-known women whose first books were published when they were over 40 is lengthy. Annie Proulx, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Isak Dinesen, Elizabeth Strout, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Maya Angelou are in that group. And this year the literary world welcomed a number of mature debut female authors to its ranks who I’ve had the pleasure of either meeting through our literary endeavors or becoming acquainted with through corresponding with them as a fellow debut author of a mature age.
Vivian Gibson: The memoir by the 70-year-old author, The Last Children of Mill Creek, ranked number 4 on Publisher’s Weekly’s Bestseller’s list for the week of May 16, 2020. Gibson began writing short stories about her childhood memories of Mill Creek, an African American neighborhood in Saint Louis that was destroyed in 1959 to build a highway, after retiring at age 66.
Dr. Bettye Kearse: A retired pediatrics specialist in her late 70s is the author of The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family. Kearse traced her family’s history from the antebellum South to present-day California and Boston and investigates long-standing claims that she and her relatives are descended from U.S. President James Madison.
Dr. Rita Woods: The physician and medical director who always felt a pull toward writing is the author of Remembrance, a complex novel about loss and survival told across 200 years by four women, united by the color of their skin and the supernatural powers they command.
In a recent interview Ruth Greenstein, publisher at independent Turtle Point Press, described discovering and working with younger writers who are gifted as “an unparalleled thrill” and a “kind of honeymoon.” But she added that when the work of an author is exceptional, age is not an important factor. “What counts is passion, energy, originality. I find that older writers tend to have more to say—more wisdom that’s worth hearing and remembering,” she added.
Greenstein’s interview was published on Bloom, a literary site devoted to highlighting, profiling, reviewing, and interviewing authors whose first major work was published when they were age 40 or older. The fact that this website exists is an indication of the literary world’s embrace of the mature writer. Bloom is also a community of artists and readers who believe that “late” is a relative term. I couldn’t agree more.