At the Back Fence Issue #232

July 17, 2006

From the Desk of Robin Uncapher

The Age In Your Head

The more I considered the issue of age and romance novels, the bigger the subject became. For that reason this is the first in a series of columns on romance and Chick Lit novels and age. In future columns I plan to talk more about specific books, but the purpose of this column is to get us all thinking about what makes America , the publishing industry, and even the romance readership, just a bit uncomfortable with the idea of an aging romance reader.

Contrary to that old chestnut, your age is not all in your head. If that were true we would all be immortal. But there is an age in your head and there is also your age in the heads of others. How old are you when you dream? And when you pick up a romance novel about a twenty year old heroine, are you twenty again?

My daughter, now age twelve, has a theory I find disconcerting. She is sure that, had I not met her dad in college in 1975, I would have remained single. And a very sad old maid I would have been – a sort of Lizzy Borden (without the murder, of course), wearing 70s style clothing made of polyester. Not for me the life of a fun, devil-may-care singleton with an exciting career, a house at the beach and a swank two bedroom on Central Park South. My days would have involved heavy tortoise shell glasses, pilled cardigans like those in the What Not to Wear trash cans, and early evenings with cats. It’s a sad, sad little life I would have had, made even more dismal by the absence of children, which were, after all the main objective of my decision to marry. As my daughter puts it, shaking her head with pity, “there would have been no ‘little Lizzy’.”

My son, age sixteen, is only slightly less depressing in his assessment of his parents as independent humans. In a conversation about the value of designer clothing for kids who have not finished growing, he points out that good clothing is not really necessary for my husband and me as “we are already married.” From this I infer that the current high schooler lives in a kind of 21st century version of The Marriage Mart. Who needs a waistcoat and neck cloth when Ralph Lauren is producing Polo shirts in colors like Melon and Tangerine?

]]> Support our sponsors Teenagers can be forgiven for relegating their parents to the category of sexless drones (there is nothing new in this) but what about people who clamor for my money? Check out this month’s Harper’s Bazaar. In a strange article entitled, “Fabulous at Any Age”, we learn that while 30s women should experiment with shorts for Fall, and 40s women should seek out rich materials like brocade, patent and crocodile; those of us in our 50s should choose “olive, gray and black.” (Appropriate, no doubt, for the “fabulous” declining years.)

All this brings me to the subject of this column, which is this: How comfortable are all of us with the idea of an aging female romance reader?

Let’s be honest. It’s not only younger people who find the idea of an older reader disconcerting. It’s all of us, including those of us who have passed that 40th birthday. It’s a subject we avoid, which is not good because when we avoid this subject won’t we be most likely to fall back on the prejudices we had a thirty?

Like it or not all of us, male, female rich and poor have an idea of who is old and who is not. We look at our mothers and grandmothers. We look at our daughters. Quite likely when we look at ourselves ours is the only generation that makes us completely comfortable in the area of sex and romance. Yes, we try to be open minded when grandma takes that cruise with her “friend.” We smile. We tell each other how nice it is that she has companionship. And if it’s Grandpa going on the cruise we’re even happier. We’re a bit proud perhaps, that Grandpa’s friend is also seventy-five and that Grandpa is not one of those guys trying to pick up fifty-year old gold diggers.

When we spot Grandma with a romance novel we smile. How nice that she can have some diversion. But we do our best not to imagine that Grandma while reading that hot love scene is identifying with the twenty-five year old heroine. And the truth is, she probably is.

I am fifty-two. Oh my, you are thinking – so old. Or maybe if you are long past these years, you are thinking – so young. Maybe you are my age, but, for a split second you forgot how old you were and pictured someone old – then readjusted to how you and your friends look.

The age we are and who we are inside can differ. In my dreams I am sometimes a child, often a college student or a young adult. And yet there are times when I read a heroine just ten years younger than myself and think she is just too young. Other times I am oblivious of the age of the heroine and identify with her unthinking. Why is this?

Here is my theory. We are all the same person inside, from young adulthood to old age. But we are not the same as the previous generation nor the one coming after us. My grandmother at 70 told me she was still sixteen in her head. She was. She was a 1910 sixteen year old, not to be confused with a 1970 sixteen year old, which was me.

So why is this important? The romance readership is aging and this is bugging the heck out of publishers.

Presumably this concern stems from the rather depressing prediction that the American readership of romance is going to die off, leaving no one to buy future crops of historicals, contemps and series books. But I cannot help but wonder if there is a subtext to this worry, one that publishers themselves are reluctant to address – that no one, not readers, not publishers, not anyone, is really comfortable with the idea that women of a “certain age,” read romance. This may be counter-intuitive to readers who live outside the business world and have an idealized view of business people making decisions objectively. As someone who has worked with financial services for thirty years, my view is different. While business people would like to think their decisions are based on logic, a surprising number are based on prejudice and heresy. One senior person says such and such a type of person would not be interested in X and, before you know it everyone else is repeating it. This accounts for such gaffs as putting insane amounts of money into Internet ventures with no clear way of making money, and the introduction of New Coke.

Many people: readers, publishers, editors (and me) have a tough time getting their minds around is the idea of a fifty or sixty or seventy year old woman reading a hot love story featuring a thirty year old hero and being carried away by it. If they do get their minds around it, they are trying to be open minded – or maybe they are quietly snickering about dirty old women who read romance novels.

Me? A dirty old woman? (Said looking over my shoulder for someone who has spotted that Mine To Take copy on my shelf.)

All of this came to mind as I was reading a 2005 Chick Lit book by Laura Castoro, A New Lu, in which a fifty year old woman discovers, to her astonishment, that she is pregnant. The father of Sweet Tum, as Lu calls the unborn baby, is Lu’s soon to be ex-husband. Lu is caught unaware by the pregnancy but is probably less surprised than many of the people around her. She still sees herself as a healthy adult woman, not as someone who has turned an invisible corner. She is concerned about having a baby this late, but the fact that she is having it does not embarrass her the way it clearly disconcerts many other people, including her grown children and her co-workers.

Lu is a columnist at a women’s magazine called Five-Oh! The magazine’s new editor wants to give Lu a makeover, complete with botox and plastic surgery, so she will no longer look her age, But when the pregnancy is revealed, she changes her mind and decides Lu will write a series of articles tracking the horror of her situation.

So much for the “happiest time of a woman’s life.”

One nice thing about A New Lu is that Lu thinks and acts like a person, not like a caricature of a person. There’s a young photographer who has a crush on her. A forty-something doctor, William, falls in love with her. Lu has let herself go a bit. She’s surprised to discover that just a few changes, like dying her hair, seem to make her less invisible to the population.

It was odd picking up a book with a fifty year old heroine. Lu is probably the first romance heroine I have ever read whose age is close to mine. (I began reading romance when I was forty-four.) And yet, rather than identifying more strongly with her, I found I sometimes fell out of the story. I’ve never been a fifty year old divorced woman on my own. My experiences dating go back to my early twenties. So when I read a heroine I am her, in my younger years. A New Lu had me wondering what dating in my fifties would be like.

It’s a subject I seem to be hearing a lot about. The fifties are a time of intense change. A number of long married friends and family have gone through divorces in the past year and it has me thinking that people don’t change as much as you think. For the first time in decades, I have been getting phone calls from girlfriends that describe first dates, guys who don’t call, how to break it off, and how it feels to be on the receiving end of all that.

Lu often sounds a lot like my friends. She has a house, kids, friends and a life. She doesn’t need a man the way she did when she was twenty-five. Her ex-husband is a jerk, but it stings knowing that someone who was not only a spouse, but family, has moved on. There is no getting away from a spouse you have lived with and raised children with for 25 years. Despite the bitterness some small bit of tenderness remains.

Almost no one thinks Lu should go forward with her pregnancy. Initially Lu herself, reading the statistics, believes the baby has little or no chance of making it full term. But when the baby begins to grow Lu feels that little person inside her and decides to give her a chance. Naturally William agrees (which is one way we know he’s the hero.) Unlike most romance heroines, Lu knows exactly what she is getting herself into. She worries about money and the future but she knows she will be okay. (Though she should be settling that child support question with her obnoxious ex.) Most of the time, Lu is a grown-up of the first order.

Which brings me to the one thing in A New Lu that did not ring true. When we fall in love, are we ever grown-up? I hope not. William, the doctor and Lu’s admirer, is about as dishy as they come. He’s recently divorced, handsome, responsible, sexy, adores Lu, and likes the idea that she is pregnant. About halfway through the book Lu has what she thinks is a one night stand with him. But, even though William is attentive and works hard to convince Lu to be with him, Lu puts him on hold because she has so many other things to deal with. Lu knows that guys like William do not come along every day. She thinks about William a lot. She loves him. And yet, Lu lets William go for days leaving her sad voice mails asking what is wrong. She treats him horribly even though she knows she loves him. None of this made sense to me. One of Lu’s biggest problems is money and the lack of a father for her child. There is William practically begging to solve this problem and she won’t even call him?

And we are supposed to believe this because Lieu is fifty and pregnant? I didn’t get it. I would have understood if Lu were not in love. Fifty and divorced would be a time to avoid compromises when it came to re-marriage. But love is love. We are all kids when we fall in love.

Despite this it would be great to see more books like A New Lu. This was a Chick Lit book in a sub genre that some are beginning to call “Hen Lit.” Okay, call me Gloria Steinhem. I was not a Chick and I’m certainly not a Hen.

But regardless of the demographics, the fifty-year old heroine is unlikely to replace the twenty-five year old one in most women’s minds. When I read Mary Jo Putney, Jennifer Crusie or Mary Balogh I am as young or as old as any of their heroines, regardless of how I look under the lamp at night.

How old are you when you read a romance? What do you think of the idea that your internal age is more linked to your generation, than the number of years you have lived?

Do heroines in contemporary romances seem to be their ages? Does your own age affect how you feel about them?

Is there a difference between the way you identify with a historical heroine or a contemporary one? Does age enter into this?

Are we all young when we fall in love? How so?

Do you agree with Robin that people are sometimes uncomfortable with the idea of women “of a certain age,” reading romance? Do you think publishers might be part of that group? Why?

Do you think you will continue to read romance throughout your life? Do you think your perspective on it will change as you grow older? How?

Robin Uncapher

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(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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