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firstname.lastname@example.org BOOKS This section is compiled by Books Editor Danuta Kean. To submit a poetry or short story review or vox pop, visit www.mslexia.co.uk/submit
books to look out for: Here come the Baby Boomers
Older women are no longer taking supporting roles in novels. Danuta Kean charts the rise of Empty Nest Lit
Blame it on demographic change, or blame it on Madonna and Helen Mirren, but in the past year unprecedented numbers of older women are taking centre stage in novels and nonfiction. With the suddenness of a hot flush, the menopause has become something novelists – and their publishers – want to celebrate and not pass over in embarrassed silence.
Already this year in the nonfiction market the launch of Jane Shilling’s stirring memoir of middle age The Stranger in The Mirror (see Reading Group review on p 58) and Jill Shaw Ruddock’s The Second Half of Your Life (Vermillion) have garnered sales as well as headlines, while Linda Grant’s We Had It So Good (see box) is one novel among many to tackle the Baby Boomer Generation in midlife crisis.
Patrick Janson-Smith, publisher of the HarperCollins’ imprint Blue Door, is adamant that demographic change is driving the trend towards older female protagonists. ‘We have an ageing population,’ he says. ‘There is also a recognition among publishers that the people who buy print books – and Kindles – are older and want stories that reflect their experience.’
‘It is about time,’ says literary agent Clare Alexander, whose clients include Fanny Blake and Virginia Ironside. ‘In 2005 Emma Soames, then Editor of Saga, gave a talk at the Booksellers Association conference,
and told publishers they were under-publishing for older women,’ she recalls. ‘There’s lots of research showing that Baby Boomers are heavy book buyers, but publishers have been slow to respond – mainly because most editors are not Baby Boomers.’
Simple economics has forced publishers to target older women: book spending has been in decline for the past three years, so they need to find new markets. And it turns out that the middle-aged are early adopters of e-readers like Kindle. Research released in February by OnePoll revealed that six per cent of the over-55s own a digital reading device. That is equivalent to 500,000 people. A further 18 per cent said they planned to buy one in the next year. With sales of digital books rocketing, it’s easy to see why publishers want to appeal to older readers.
It means authors like Fanny Blake, Elizabeth Buchan and Allison Pearson are pioneers in a market yet to peak. Blake believes the shift towards older protagonists reflects what has been happening in the magazine market: titles like Good Housekeeping and Woman and Home, aimed at the over-35s, have seen their sales rise steadily in a general market in the doldrums. ‘These magazines often have women over 50 on their covers now, which would never have happened 15 years ago,’ she says.
The rise of an older generation as an economic power has also lifted taboos about discussing issues that affect them. ‘My mother’s generation would never have talked about the menopause,’ she adds. ‘Writers can look at issues in a way that was not so easily done in the past.’
By liberating writers to discuss frankly the biological changes affecting this generation, it has opened a rich source of drama: the simple fact of being older makes your average 50-year-old – facing an empty
LATEST BOOKS WITH OLDER WOMEN PROTAGONISTS
What Women Want, by Fanny Blake (Blue Door, £7.99) Bea, Kate and Ellen have always depended on one another. Impulsive Bea is divorced, but dating again; stressed-out GP Kate’s marriage is in the doldrums; widowed Ellen is focused on her art gallery and her children. Their bond is threatened when Ellen falls in love.
A Surrey State of Affairs, by Ceri Radford (Abacus, £7.99) Constance Harding spends her time party-planning (disastrous) and matchmaking for son Rupert (catastrophic). But trouble is afoot when she discovers lacy underwear in her husband’s study, the parrot learns new words and her daughter goes off the rails.
Separate Beds, by Elizabeth Buchan (Penguin, £6.99) Annie and Tom’s prosperous marriage seems stable, but secretly they sleep in separate beds. Then recession strikes, Tom drops a bombshell, and their stability is threatened. The crisis fills the house, as the family rallies together and the couple start to talk openly at last.
We Had It So Good by Linda Grant (Virago, £12.99) It’s 1968, the summer of love and revolution. When Californian Stephen is sent down from Oxford, he marries Andrea to avoid the US draft board. Forty years later, they are settled and successful – until ageing and the new millennium face them with some uncomfortable truths.
The Man in the Wooden Hat, by Jane Gardam (Abacus, £7.99) The setting is Hong Kong. Reserved and immaculate lawyer Filth finds it hard to show emotion, unlike wife Elisabeth, whose lust for survival comes from her upbringing in a Japanese internment camp. No wonder she’s drawn to Filth’s rival, the brash and forceful Veneering.
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