It’s Not the Age, It’s the Rejection

I was kind of amused to read a Boston Globe feature piece on author Michael Zadoorian’s second novel, The Leisure Seeker.

http://www.boston.com/lifestyle/family/articles/2010/03/14/bringing_older_folks_back_in_the_picture_1268544077/

Seems Zadoorian had the novel rejected by 35 different agents, then found an agent who loved it and sold it to HarperCollins and got it optioned for film no less. The thrust of the article was that Zadoorian had to endure the difficulties of getting to such a fortuitous deal because The Leisure Seeker is about an elderly, dying couple who ditch their concerned kids in order to travel in a mobile home, and twenty-something agents don’t want to deal with novels about old people because publishers and the American people don’t like novels about old people, and one agent said that maybe Zadoorian should write about younger people instead.

Now I’ve got nothing against Zadoorian at all. In fact, his novel sounds terrific and I’ll definitely be checking it out and probably it will make a good movie. And it’s certainly hard enough for any fiction author to get any press coverage, so I can’t begrudge the attempt to paint the novel as an underdog that beat the odds. But the claim of rampant age discrimination in fiction publishing in the article does unfortunately ignore a lot of the realities of fiction publishing. To whit:

1) An author writing about characters who are older than him or her is considered challenging and therefore interesting and therefore an actual plus in trying to get publicity for a book (like with the Boston Globe.) The majority of fiction readers are middle-aged to older and publishers have long understood that they can sell books with older protagonists to a quite reliable audience, and consequently, adult fiction publishing is not, like Hollywood, fixated only on teens, and certainly not on prettiness. Books like the bestselling comic romance Julie and Romeo by Jeanne Ray, Louis Begley’s acclaimed drama About Schmidt, Epitaph by James Siegel, thrillers like On the Warpath by Gerald Hammond and Tricky Business by Dave Barry,  and mystery series like Getting Old by Rita Lakin and Kate Kennedy Senior Sleuth by Nora Charles, pop up regularly and are often successful.

2) Getting rejected by 35 literary agents or more before finding one who connects with the material is extremely common, whatever the subject matter of a novel. It happens to thousands of authors, and many of them eventually find an agent, but don’t get a sale to a publisher. Thousands of authors never get an agent or a deal with a big publisher like HarperCollins, instead managing to get published by small presses. There are also many authors who do get an agent and a sale right off the bat; in fact, it’s probably as common as getting rejected by 35 literary agents before finding one who will take you on. But that doesn’t change the fact that getting rejected by 35 agents is not unusual or likely propelled only by the age of the characters. I’m sure several of the agents Zadoorian dealt with told him they didn’t like it because the characters were old, because those agents found such subject matter boring. An author going out in the market with a mystery is likely to run into agents who think mysteries are awful, or an author may be told that he should have a woman protagonist instead of a man, or any number of other suggestions because the agents were just not that interested. But other agents, such as the one who took Zadoorian on, will be, and the same goes for publishers — HarperCollins seems unafraid of the age issue. The same goes for your writing style and how you structure your story’s framework. If you are going to try to sell your work in fiction publishing, the likelihood of large amounts of rejection is a given.

3) While there are younger agents, the average age of literary agents tends to be a good bit older than twenties. Late thirties to forties is more the norm. Literary agents with AARP cards are not unusual. The idea, again, that fiction publishing operates like Hollywood, looking for youth and only trusting the instincts of the young, has little basis in reality. That the Boston Globe embraced that idea so readily says more about the media’s fascination with youth than it does about fiction publishing.

It is very tempting, when receiving 35 rejections, to try to come up with some grand conspiracy reason why your novel didn’t fly with those people. But the truth is that rejections happen, and very seldom for the same reason each time. Again, I wish Michael Zadoorian well, but I hope that the next piece I read about his novel will be about how great it is, and not about how literary agents are scared of old people.

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