Am I Too Old for This?
A 65-year-old debut novelist examines the publishing world's obsession with youth
Debut: The word connotes virginal daughters of the elite, gowned and gleaming, stepping lightly in heels through a ballroom and into high society.
This summer brings my debut. I’m sixty-five. I wear orthotics, not heels, and step lightly through the Trader Joe’s parking lot. And rather than a high-society ritual, my debut is a novel—not the first I’ve completed, but the first to make it into print.
The term debut feels uncomfortable when applied to my book, like a dress ordered online that turns out to have been cut for someone with a teenage figure. I’m not sure what it means when applied to someone at my stage of life, which makes me wonder what it means in general.
With roots in Old French, debut originally referred to the first stroke in a billiards match, then the first public appearance by a stage performer, and, by the early 1800s, the introduction of a young marriageable woman to high society through an elite gala. Think Bridgerton. Think the Waldorf Astoria which has hosted an international debutante ball every two years since 1954. Think Bob Dylan: “Your debutante just knows what you need, but I know what you want.”
And the concept of a debut novel? Google places the first published use of the term in 1930, but the phrase has really taken off over the past several decades. A line graph of the mention of “debut novel” in Google Books rises after 1980 like the Rockies from the plains. Now it’s ubiquitous in publishing: “mesmerizing debut.” “An intense, unputdownable debut.” “A kicky debut.” Five out of twelve novels on the front table of my local bookstore have the word “debut” somewhere on their cover.
Magazines, including the New York Times Book Review, run occasional round-ups of debut novels as if it were an actual genre, as if the books have something real in common. In fact, the plots and writing styles of first novels have almost nothing in common. The one thing they share is a weight of hope and hype.
The hype is hardly unique to the publishing world. Advertising pelts consumers with the allure of the new, from shiny updated car models each year to endless new (if only marginally improved) iPhone versions. Magazines herald the newest fashions and trends, while social media has slashed the length of the novelty cycle from months to bare hours. A first-time author is ripe fruit for the buzz blender, especially if they are young and extroverted and conventionally good looking. It’s not surprising that each year brings us new “thirty under thirty” lists, new young writer awards, new profiles of “the voice of a new generation.”
The hope embedded in a debut novel, however, is more complex.
For publishers and agents and booksellers, the debut label carries a hope that this will be the first of many. The writer will not be a one-hit wonder; their career will unfold and deepen over decades. Literary-minded editors hope they’ve discovered the next Faulkner or Morrison, while their colleagues on the business side hope for the stellar sales and marathon stamina of a Stephen King or a Jodi Picoult. Debut authors inspire the same kind of dreams that parents have for their infants: this child could become anything, an Einstein or Beyoncé or Obama. They are pure potential.
Writers, too, read hope into a debut. The financial stakes for them are real and stark: sales of a first novel will affect how big an advance, if any, they can get for their next one. But there’s also a nimbus of blurrier, luminous hopes. Like those young girls entering high society, the writer envisions a grand entrance into the rarified sphere of literary celebrity. Their book will arrive to trumpets and fireworks and critical praise. They’ll jet between Yaddo and PEN conferences; they’ll trade quips over cocktails with Sally Rooney and N. K. Jemisin. They’ll even (gasp!) quit their day job and make a living from writing fiction.
This is all more believable when you’re twenty-five than when you’re sixty-five.
Shaken Loose, my debut novel, is the fifth I’ve written over almost as many decades. The first two were terrible. The next two were not quite as bad. Along the way, I became a newspaper reporter, a parent, a nonprofit communications manager, and the author of a nonfiction book about girls’ education. I lived a life. I wrote novels at night, on maternity leave, and on unemployment when my newspaper downsized.
I started work on this fifth novel in 2013 when I was fifty-five years old, and sold it to a small press when I was sixty-four years old, and now it’s being published and I am sixty-five years old. My expectations as a “debutante” are very different than what they would have been when I was a young writer.
My goals are . . . I resist the word “lower,” so let’s say “more realistic.” In college I dreamed of becoming another Virginia Woolf with future PhD students poring over each overwrought page of my diaries. In my twenties and thirties I toned it down a bit and aspired to be a literary bestseller. In my forties, I just wanted to be a bestseller.
Today I bow before mid-list novelists, genre novelists, self-published novelists—writers that my younger, snobbier self would have discounted. I understand how hard it is simply to create a narrative arc, to surprise readers, to write dialogue that sounds real. Today I’m thrilled if I can produce a book that holds together and doesn’t make me cringe and maybe leaves some readers moved or delighted.
I’m also experienced enough to know that debuts aren’t what they used to be thirty or forty years ago. The economics of publishing have changed. Many more new books are being published each year but fewer people are reading them, and a majority of books are now bought online. Publishers’ marketing budgets are tightly focused on books with perceived bestseller potential. This means that most debut novelists will never be picked up at the airport and driven to readings by a solicitous handler like the fictional authors in Wonder Boys, Less, and Hell of a Book. They will not be booked on Good Morning America. Instead, they’ll buy their own wine and cheese and haul it to their book launch in a shopping bag. They’ll print their own postcards. They’ll post frenetically on social media and beseech friends to write reviews on Amazon, hoping the positive comments will outnumber the trolls.
My view of the aftermath of a debut is different now too. I’ve been at this long enough to see writer friends publish a first novel to crushing silence, or disappointing sales, or a twenty-year-gap before the completion of their next book. I’m no longer looking for publication to transform my life and make me famous or respected or loved. I’ve grown accustomed to my quiet, comfy home office and know that I don’t need to be invited to Yaddo to write. I have longtime friends and a real-world community, and my social life is just fine even if I never have cocktails with Rooney and Jemisin. (Although . . . Jemisin. Sigh.)
And I’m retired! I no longer have a day job that I’m yearning to quit. Any income from fiction is a bonus. When I hear young writers stress about money, I feel blessed not to be thirty years old and calculating how many self-published e-books I need to move on Amazon each month to cover the rent.
Further, there’s less pressure to stick to one genre. My debut novel and its forthcoming sequel are contemporary fantasy set in Hell. The next book I’m planning will be historical fiction set in seventeenth-century Europe. If I were thirty, I might be telling myself to build a brand—to stick with one genre or one style. But mortality is real for me now. I’m not counting on decades to build a long-haul career with its own consistent narrative arc. I’m taking it one book at a time.
This is, of course, all within limits. No one would mistake me for a Book Boddhisatva, the only author in history to have reached a state of placid equilibrium. I stress about limited distribution and publicity. I envy writers with Big Five publishers. I worry that everyone who has given me wonderful blurbs actually hates my book and just did it because they feel sorry for me. I’m plagued by all the usual insecure, imposter-syndrome voices. But at sixty-five, I can tell myself (and believe it!) that those voices are normal, and are as much a part of the debut experience as the cheap wine and cheese at a book launch. I can tell the voices to shut up and let me enjoy the moment. That’s not something I could have done as easily at thirty.
Today, I can remind myself: I wrote this book. I can hold it in my hands, turn its pages, and smell the printer’s ink. People are reading it and enjoying it and telling me so—not enough people to make it onto a bestseller list but enough to make me feel good. The characters I created have a life beyond my computer screen. Like the velveteen rabbit in the children’s book by Margery Williams, they’ve become real. It feels a little godlike—inventing a world out of nothing and having strangers enter it—especially at an age when aching knees and feet remind me on a daily basis that I’m not immortal.
What kind of debutante ball is this, in which the debutante makes a glittering entrance and then changes into her orthotics to buy milk and eggs at the grocery store?
Maybe it’s not really a debut at all, at least not in the sense of a hype-and-hope-filled launch of a cohesive literary career. Or maybe it’s better described with an additional adjective: a “centered” debut. A “self-knowing” debut.
A sixty-five-year-old debut.