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Experience enriches fiction, but it doesn't reward authors
Publishers these days want their novelists looking young and shiny, but the books themselves are less attractive as a result

At a certain point in your career as a novelist, you have to come to terms with no longer being "young". For novelists, youth seems to last, officially at least and according to Granta, until you are 40 – but eventually, time catches up with us all.

Personally, I've always been conscious of death, and on the whole rather cheered by the thought that one day my troubles large or small will be over. What I'm not so happy about is not having done enough with my life. Next to those I revere, composers especially, none of us will ever do much – or indeed, suffer as much. But there are times when I feel that I've been serving out a sentence of some 20 years in order to look after my children and work and write, and that none of these has been done quite as single-mindedly or as satisfactorily as I'd wish. Not that I'm complaining: I count myself unbelievably lucky to have combined even two of these things. However, other women artists may understand when I say that it's often felt like competing in a race in which you have a handicap.

About a decade ago, I looked up how old all the women novelists I most admired were when they published their breakthrough book – the book that either won them a big prize, or became a bestseller. I was quite depressed at the time, and wondered how long I was going to have to wait and whether it was ever going to be worthwhile. (Usually, I feel that one must write for the love of the thing itself, but this requires a level of fortitude that isn't easy to maintain.) Time and again, I found that they all hit their late 40s or mid-50s before this happened. The exception seemed to be gay women. The reason why was easy to guess: if you have children, your career tends to be eclipsed for a good decade-and-a-half.

Children bring plenty of other things to a novelist's life, many of which are beneficial, but the one thing that you can't get over is the loss of time and energy. There are only so many hours in the day. Even JS Bach, who crammed more compositions into one year than most would manage in a lifetime, and who had 12 children, had somebody else to do the dishes. Without children, many people could write a novel a year, certainly one every two years. With them, you more or less double that. The whole books-and-babies issue was satirised by the French critic Roland Barthes, who completely failed to understand why French novelists featured in Marie-Claire were photographed with both. I am not going to go into this vexed territory again, but I have been thinking a good deal this month about middle age, partly as a result of reading Jane Shilling's The Stranger in the Mirror, an affecting memoir of her own entrance into the condition of not-being-young.

Becoming invisible is actually quite an important thing if you are the kind of novelist who is above all interested in people, and I don't mind it as much as some. It means you can, like Miss Marple, be overlooked as you overhear all kinds of interesting stuff; personally, I found it quite annoying and tiresome to be looked at as a young woman (unless it was by someone I wanted to pay attention to me). However, not being young is currently disastrous for novelists, especially women novelists – much as it is for actors. Unless and until we get to the lofty eminence of our eighties and are once again deemed as interesting as Diana Athill, middle age is a period of about 30 years in which somehow, despite having a lifetime of experience to draw upon, we are somehow not worth reading.

This is, I think, a relatively new problem. Up until the 1980s, it was expected that novelists would be people of some age and experience. In fact, I remember when I met Graham Greene as a mere strip of an 18-year-old and said (with a mixture of trepidation and callow eagerness) that I, too, wanted to write fiction, I was subjected to one of his withering put-downs. "What can you possibly have to write about?" he asked. "You haven't begun to live. Wait until you're at least 40."

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The Guardian