Saturday, 14 March 2020

The Mysterious Case of the Invisible Boomer.

We are increasingly aware that some verbal discrimination may be unintentional. Making uninformed assumptions, some people may not realise (or even care) that what they are saying is biased and can contribute to harmful perceptions of others. It’s being called out and challenged time and time again and yet there still seems to be one form of ‘ism’ that occurrs frequently and remains largely unchallenged. Ageism.

As I grow older, I’ve become more and more aware of ageism, much of it I’m sure is unintentional, but it would seem it’s way down the list of taboos. Recently there has been a ridiculous stand-off on social media between older people moaning about so called Millennials and Millennials whining about Boomers. And perhaps by using the word moaning in relation to the older generation and whining in relation to the younger I have just displayed a form of ageism myself. (I was trying to be a good writer and not re-use a word.) A young Tweeter recently announced that ‘OK Boomer is not OK anymore.’ It never was OK! Currently there's a particulary nasty hashtag regarding Boomers  on Twitter being used by a few members of a younger generation. But far from all and neither do I assume that all Millennials do nothing but eat avocados. 

Ageism can be aimed at and disadvantage people of any age but in literature older people often find themselves totally invisible or if they do exist, depicted as the elderly eccentric or a stereotyped ‘amazing older person’ who pluckily joins in the action and surprises everyone including themselves! (Not that I’m against being bold or eccentric as I grow older but I’m not quite ready for that portrayal.) Literature’s older people are often written only as minor characters or in unflattering lights, or where there is an older main character, the content is often them recalling their youth. Their current life is of little or no interest and they are merely waiting out their last years until death like the charming Mrs Palfrey at The Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor.

Some authors have successfully bucked this trend. Harold Fry certainly took advantage of his retired years (The Unlikley Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce) as did Allan Karlsson (The Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, along with his fellow Swedes featured in Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg’s The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules and its sequels, albeit in a somewhat surreal world!

Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie and Emma Healey’s Elizabeth Is Missing were poignant and had beautifully portrayed characters that showed a realistic, but nevertheless frail depiction of older age.   

Joanna Nell’s comedy The Single Ladies of Jacaranda Retirement Village and Josephine’s Wilson’s Extinctions take a much more positive view, although they are realistic in that issues we may experience as we age are never far away, in these two very different books set in Australian retirement villages.

I have recently come across another Australian author, Liz Byrski, whose characters are mostly women in their 50s to 70s and are shown in positive ways, even when illness or other issues affecting older people are evident, such as bereavement after a long marriage. Their friendships grow and they overcome barriers as they take on new challenges.

Hilary Boyd’s novel Thursdays in the Park features 60-year-old grandma, Jeannie, who falls in love with a fellow grandparent after several meetings at the park with their respective grandchildren. Published in 2012, the book received some harsh criticism, presumably from younger people, because it was about people in their 60s having and enjoying sex. Apparenty that's not allowed. Someone called Lindsay Mannering on CafeMom website claims she's 'all for the elderly going at it' but I doubt she believes they do as she goes on to write:

So! All you blue hairs out there! Or you yet to be blue hairs who think you're too old to read Fifty Shades! Sounds like this gran-lit book is right up your alley. As America's baby boomers settle into retirement, maybe this book can help them visualize a sexy-time life outside of playing bridge and yelling at the news, or whatever it is that retired people do.”

It might be allowable for a few Boomers to have a moan about this Millennial's attitude. Eight years on, I hope Jeannie’s having a better sex life, none of which was explicit in the book, than this person who admits she hadn't read the book.

I've have read books with older characters, indeed I read one claiming to be a comedy that even had Boomer in the title. I thought it was dreadful, mainly because the characters all behaved like very immature 20 somethings or were the stereotype quirky eccentric. It wasn't funny either. 

Recently on Twitter a writer asked what age were the protagonists in people’s WIPs. Joanna Nell’s was the first response I saw with ‘89.’ There were 266 responses (at the time of writing this) and I jotted down the answers. I don’t know the genres of the responders’ WIPs but some were evidently fantasy and otherworld writers as characters were ranged from 130 years old to 12,000!

I guess a number of WIPs were aimed at children and YA genres as children and teens were well represented. I wasn’t surprised to learn that characters in their 20s and 30s were the most represented, 40s less so but still a fair number. I spotted only one protagonist in their 50s. Mine at 60 were alone as was the 89-year old! Now this may tell us more that the writers who happened to see that tweet were themselves the younger writers out there, which is good to see. But are older writers writing older main characters? And if we are, are we getting published? I’ve had no success with my novel about a 60-year old so far!

Let me know if you have written novels with older protagonists or have recomendations (with links to reviews, if available) about good novels with interesting characters in their 50s to 70s so I can do a follow up post.