By Christine Webber.
The curious absence of midlife women in novels.
You’d have to be living on another planet not to know that a large proportion of current contemporary novels are crime mysteries and psychological thrillers. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you’re an unknown writer with a good idea for a book, it’s unlikely to even be considered by a publisher unless it belongs to that genre.
This is not a criticism exactly, trends are powerful entities; they dictate our choices in clothes, films, how we speak and how we vote – as well as the books we read.
But, leaving aside the limited type of fiction of offer, let’s look at a subject I think is even more puzzling – which is why there are so few fictional heroines who are vital, energetic, sexy, and in their fifties or older?
Most novels’ main characters are younger. At the other end of the scale, some authors do write about very old people but they often do so in a stereotypical way. You know the kind of thing; the characters groan when they sink into a chair, moan about arthritis, complain about their feet, lose their teeth and wouldn’t buy a skirt unless it had an elasticated waist.
But baby boomers, who have changed the world and enjoyed educational and health and contraceptive options previous generations could only dream about, are not well-represented in fiction despite being an influential and large part of our population.
In 2010, I wrote a non-fiction guide for this age group all about keeping as young as possible for as long as possible. The research for that book, Too Young to Get Old, made me realise that as a generation we are living our midlife very differently from the way our mothers did.
When we were younger, we may have assumed that by now we’d be winding down and have plenty of time to ourselves, but the reality is that our lives are very complicated – we have masses of interests, we’re mostly still working and, almost invariably, we are supporting adult children and coping with elderly parents.
Not surprisingly, when we turn to fiction we would like to read about people like us – in other words, about mature, multi-faceted and fascinating women. But the choice is limited.
I felt so strongly about this that I returned to writing fiction after a gap of 29 years with the express intention of penning a tale all about the sort of mid-life, educated and viable females I know and love and see all around me. The result is my new novel, Who’d Have Thought It?
In it, my main character, Dr Annie Templeton has been dumped by her husband of thirty years, but the real story begins a year later as she emerges from that break-up and embraces single life, only to discover that being single in your fifties is very different from being single when you’re young.
This is particularly true when you start dating again, because you do so against the backdrop of a career, ageing parents, kids who still need you, and the whole infrastructure that you’ve assembled in adult life.
It’s a hilarious, enthralling and compelling time!
One of the most popular conventionally published authors who does write for women like us is Hilary Boyd. And her novels sell well. But there are far more writers tackling topics for mature women in the independent sector and bringing out their own books – probably because commercially-minded publishers and agents tend to seek out younger people and mostly want thrillers anyway! So do check out indie authors like Maggie Christensen and Anne Stormont, both of whom understand mid-life women perfectly and have written excellent titles that reflect that.
As for me, I am gratified that so many women have contacted me since Who’d Have Thought It? came out to tell me how delighted they have been to read a novel that feels as if it’s really about them! This is music to my ears – and it’s why I’m now embarked on writing another story where the main characters are well past the first flush of youth.
You may also like our Midlife Reinvention features.
Christine Webber worked as a singer and actor before becoming the leading news presenter for Anglia TV where she stayed for 12 years. She left TV in 1990 to focus on print journalism which led to her becoming an agony aunt for a wide range of publications. Subsequently, she trained as a psychotherapist, first at Regent’s College London, and then at Goldsmiths. Since that time she’s had a portfolio career – embracing writing, broadcasting, corporate work, and her psychotherapy practice. Her new novel is Who’d Have Thought It?