Do All Novels Need to Be About Young People?
A look at 7 recent successful novels where the main protagonists were Middle-Aged
In writing courses you’ll hear professors say things like, “It doesn’t matter the age of a character as long as they are well drawn and the writing is good.” This is true, of course. In the book business, however, agents and publishers may be having different conversations. They are inundated with manuscripts and can afford to be picky. They may be thinking about a book’s marketing, the chance of selling its film and TV rights. As any middle-aged actor will tell you, the entertainment industry is fixated with youth. They’re not complete philistines, though. There is a method to their madness. Pew research data from 2016 shows that, “Young adults – 80% of 18- to 29-year-olds have read a book in the last year, compared with 67% of those 65 and older.”
But what if you don’t know or care what younger people are into or have no interest in raking over the coals of your own youth to craft a fictional memoir? You have a story to tell but young people aren’t in it. Do you have a chance of getting published?
The good news is yes, absolutely. The bad news is that you might be making what is a tough job even tougher. But there are ways to make an older protagonist work even for a younger audience. The first thing to remember is that even if your main characters are middle-aged, they were young once and their youth has had a profound effect on them. Having a character reflect upon their younger years, or give information about their youth, not only makes the reader understand them more, but it brings a certain vibrancy to the novel.
Let’s take a look at seven novels with older protagonists and see why they worked. Maybe you’ll be able to use the information on your own writing:
1) Don Lee – Lonesome Lies Before Us
This has to have been one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. A washed up, middle-aged, alternative country singer, Yadin Park, manages to stitch together a meager existence in a rundown Northern Californian beach town working as a carpet installer. Park is in a long-term relationship with his boss’s daughter, Jeanette Matsuda. Once a photographer and now a hotel cleaner, Matsuda also bears the scars of abandoned dreams and, as a couple, the two lead a threadbare, aging hippy kind of life. Then, Yadin’s old flame, the fading country music star Mallory Wicks, reappears.
One of the reasons this book resonated so strongly with me was because the underlying theme of the novel—that talent and dreams never die—is something that supersedes age. Though the characters are older, they once were young and, in Yadin’s case, he is still in many ways the same person he was when he was releasing music, just that survival got in the way. For much of the novel he’s in search of something to ground him and give him a meaning in life. It was there all along, his creativity. As a former music journalist and songwriter, I could relate, and I’m sure many others could who still harbor dreams. There are, of course, other elements at play in the novel, too: insecurity, art versus commerce, loneliness—all drivers, for which age is not a prerequisite.
2) Jonathan Dee: A Thousand Pardons
This is a novel that succeeds in part because it’s just so compelling. When a couple’s marriage implodes spectacularly, the wife, who hasn’t worked in 14 years, has to find a job to support herself and her 12-year-old daughter. She manages to do so at a public relations (PR) firm and finds she has a knack for crisis management. Her particular skill is getting her high profile clients to apologize when they have made monumental mistakes. The public, it turns out, is more than willing to accept sincerely delivered confessions and contrition, no matter how manufactured they really are.
Here, the characters need to be older. There’s a wiseness and wariness that the main protagonist, Helen, has to have in order for the story to work. Youth is provided in the form of her 12-year-old daughter. The story is so interesting, giving a reader an insight into the life of high profile PR and the scandals and messes that wealthy people create for themselves, that it all makes for a riveting reading. This is Dee’s calling card. His previous novel, the equally if not more compelling The Privileges, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. It pulls back the curtain on the Wall Street elite, the corruption and dysfunction that extreme wealth brings. His new novel, The Locals, which I’ve just finished, is set in a post-9/11 small town in New England. A local contractor’s life and that of his community are changed when a Wall Street big shot decides to decamp permanently from New York, fearing another terrorist attack. Again, not young protagonists, but the novel has enough juxtapositions—rich versus poor, marriage versus being single, and small town versus the city—wrapped in a compelling plot, to keep things interesting.
3) Michelle Huneven: Blame
This is a completely different kind of novel and another personal favorite. I was clearly not alone, as this was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Awards. In this case, I can say with a certain amount of confidence that if it’s gripping page-turners you’re after, this isn’t it. Instead, I found it to be an engrossing, slow burn of book, a meditation on how a character comes to terms with the incredible guilt she feels for making a terrible mistake. The underlying theme: tragedy can lead to self discovery.
It’s the early 80s in Los Angeles and Patsy is young, attractive and an alcoholic. When she wakes up in jail to discover she mowed down a mother and daughter in her driveway, a journey of guilt and atonement ensue. When she is released from jail, almost scared of her own shadow, she marries a kind, much older man, a staple in the local Alcoholics Anonymous scene. But much of it is the packaging she has carefully encased herself in to ensure she never goes off the tracks again. One of the core messages is how finding happiness after terrible self-inflicted guilt and grief is okay.
Huneven’s follow up, Off Course, was another meditative slow burn, the story told with the perspective of hindsight of a graduate student’s coming of age in a small mountain town in the Sierras in the 1980s and the disastrous intense relationship she embarked on with an older, married man. It takes the perspective of an older narrator to dissect the impetuousness and recklessness of youth with the kind of illumination that Huneven’s novels do.
4) Jess Walter: The Financial Lives Of Poets
From the sublime to the ridiculous—not only is Jess Walter a brilliant writer, but he is extremely funny and great. Humor, of course, is ageless. I always felt that the title of this novel may have turned some potential readers off because it’s not about poetry at all. The basic plot is that a former business reporter, Matthew Prior, finally kills his journalism career with a harebrained scheme that attempts to marry business with poetry. That Venn diagram turns out to have only one person in it—Prior. In order to survive, as all middle-aged men with marriages on the rocks and mounting debts will attest, becoming a drug dealer seems a viable option. Prior gets mixed up with a couple of college-aged white slackers who continue to lead him into places 46-year-old men, with mortgages and senile parents to take of, shouldn’t go.
So what’s the deeper message here, and why should you care? This novel came out in 2009, just after the financial collapse, when much of America, particularly in the financial sector, was caught up in a vortex of fear and panic and looking for viable ways to make a living. Walter’s timing was right on point. Prior’s house is under water, his wife has bailed, and he’s desperate. Yes, the novel’s funny, but it’s also tragic. It hit upon the nation’s zeitgeist—a difficult but effective move to master.
5) Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland
This is a good example of how tracing someone’s life story encapsulates youth as well as middle and older age. This absorbing novel follows the story of two Indian brothers. When one joins a militant political group and is killed, his other brother, now studying in America, returns to Calcutta and marries his brother’s pregnant widow. Their relationship in America is underpinned by their struggles as parents and with one another. It’s complex and a difficult novel, I’m sure, to have written because of the broad swathe of time and emotional intensity involved—one that only such an accomplished author as Lahiri could have handled.
Like Michelle Huneven’s Blame, much of this novel concerns itself with older characters atoning for decisions they made during their youth. It’s something every older reader and writer can relate to. Some decisions are more calamitous than others, and literature seizes upon the missteps of youth and tragedy like a hawk eyeing a rabbit. What Lahiri manages to achieve in all her writing is to meld prose—at times so finely wrought it could almost be worn as jewelry and so heavy with melancholy and yearning, it can make your heart lose its rhythm—with great story telling. There is tragedy and triumph in many older people’s lives; unleashing it can make for great writing.
6) James Lasdun – The Fall Guy
For sheer writing ability, the art of putting certain words on a page in a particular sequence, Lasdun is one of the best—a writer’s writer. The fact that he is also a poet means that his metaphors are at times so blindingly good that sunglasses need to be at hand. When Lasdun meshes that ability to write great sentences with a captivating story as he did with the BBC’s 2006 inaugural short story winner, An Anxious Man,the results are spectacular. What Lasdun is particularly good at is honing in on middle-aged men’s hopes and fears, adding a combustible agent and stirring the pot. This dark, almost Hitchcock like story concerns two British cousins living in America. One has made money on Wall Street and has an attractive wife, and the other is struggling to make ends meet as a chef. The wealthier one, Charlie, invites the poorer, Matthew, to spend some time with him and his wife at their summer home in the Catskills. However, they share a secret, or at least we believe they do, and the manifestations of that, along with deceit, desire, and long, oppressive summer days make for a page-turner you could easily imagine on screen.
One of Lasdun’s many skills is being able to create tension between characters. When we can bore into someone’s mind and find out what they really think about another person or their wife, there is a voyeuristic thrill that keeps us turning the page. Up the drama and throw in infidelity, jealousy, and other dark secrets along with some fine writing, and you’ll reach the end of this novel pining for more.
7) Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney – The Nest
The premise for The Nest, a bestseller from last year, is simple. Four adult siblings are relying on a trust fund to bail them out of their financial woes. When one sibling’s recklessness threatens their money, they are forced to deal with reality and each other.
This tale is a about family, sibling rivalry, and how money can affect those relationships. It’s a universal, age-old theme. The fact that Sweeney is wildly funny and an astute observer of gentrifying Brooklyn, where the suddenly wealthy ride the subway along with the impoverished, makes this very topical. It’s layered with intrigue and salacious thrills. There’s a secretive, burgeoning lesbian relationship that one of the sibling’s daughters is embarking upon. And the promiscuity, failed marriage, and drug habit of another sibling always steal the scene. And there’s Brooklyn itself, and its incestuous publishing world. Sweeney has all basis covered.
Take a look at one or all seven of these novels with older protagonists and examine why they worked and what tweaks you can make to your work to make it more viable when you want to try and sell it.
If variety is the spice of life, Jeff Vasishta’s writing career is a vindaloo. As a music journalist with Rolling Stone, Yahoo, and Billboard, he’s interviewed Prince, Beyonce, and Quincy Jones. Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James, along with Richard Price and Ann Patchett have been quizzed by him for Interview Magazine and he also writes about gentrification for amNEWYORK.