New does not equal young

I’ve been thinking about all the various awards out there for writers under a certain age and realising that I’m not sure I think such awards are a good idea. I figured it was just a case of me getting older and crankier. But it’s more than that.

I’m all for encouraging people who only have a book or two under their belt. I’m just not convinced that a first novel by someone who’s 23 has more intrinsic worth than a first novel by someone who’s 56 or 83. If we’re going to encourage new writing why does there have to be an age limit?1

Tayari Jones author of the brilliant Leaving Atlanta2 agrees with me. What’s more she’s put her finger on something else insidious about such awards:

I now am wondering if these lists are inherently biased in terms of socio-economic class. Think about it. Most of what anyone, not just writers, accomplish at a young age has much to do with that person’s family background. It takes a few years for the boot-strappy among us to catch up with the accomplishments of the silver-spoon crowd.

Why shouldn’t these lists of new writers be determined by the author’s publishing history? I know that “Best New Writers Who Have Published Two or Fewer Books” doesn’t have the same ring of “Best New Writers Under 30,” but it makes a whole lot more sense.

“Best New Writer” has a great ring to it.

  1. One of the things I like about the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer is that it has no age limit. []
  2. It’s a seriously extraordinary book. You must read it! []


  1. alisa on #

    it could even be that young writers aren’t necessarily equipped to tell the story that older writers are – they have far less experience to give depth to their writing, and have had far less time to develop into their own voice, often sounding much like the writers they love and in some ways want to emulate. of course, i still consider myself “young.” 🙂

  2. Dawn on #

    I think that it takes a lot to get a new book out there, young or old. So, since it takes as much work for one as it does another, the awards shouldn’t have age limits!!! Even though I am young(20) and wouldn’t be opposed to getting the award…

  3. sherwood on #


  4. sylvia on #

    i agree entirely.

    and not just because i’m 33 and am just now trying to get my first novel published.

  5. Emmaco on #

    This is one of my bugbears in the non-writing world too. Ever since I worked with a woman who started a second career in her forties I’ve noticed how many awards and scholarships and workshops are for “young (insert profession)” or have an age limit. early career is a much fairer and more sensible way to do things.

  6. Dess on #

    I know you said that you read libba bray’s the sweet far thing. it was supposed to come out yesterday but barnes and noble said that it wasn’t comming out untl december. i then went to borders muttering under my breath about stupid barnes and noble not having my book when the people at borders said that their computers don’t even register getting a shippment any time soon. did it’s date change or something?

  7. Chris S. on #

    There are far too many books on store shelves that were published because publishers (like all other media) get caught up in the idea of ‘The Next Young Thing’. Some people can write; fewer can write well– why should the ratio be any different among the very young, who also bear the burden of lack of experience?

  8. Karen on #

    a hearty “rah rah”. (like sylvia, I have a first novel coming out but i’m even older than her.) i suspect that, in the minds of many, young = marketable. whatever. i’ll just keep doing what i do.

  9. claire on #

    wow, you can really tell the age of your commenters! i’m on the far side of 35 and not even close to finishing my first novel, but i think age limitations on SOME awards are a great idea.

    for one thing, everyone here agreeing seems to think that a writer’s value is solely in what they do solo–the great wo/man theory of culture. but writers write not merely in communities but also in generations and eras. restricting an award to an “under ___” age group focuses attention on the early achievers of a particular next generation, and also has the effect of noting the influences of particular eras on the content and form of writing of a particular generation in their early years.

    there’s a lot of value in that alone, and i really wish writers awards would make more of an effort to shine a light on culture in general and not just act as popularity contests.

    additionally, young writers are something other than early-career writers: they’re not just learning how to be writers like early-career writers at 37 (a-hem, dont know where i came up with *that* number) or 70, they’re also learning how to be adults, how to live in the world, how to manage a job, a career, how to be gracious and hardworking, etc. etc.

    if handled properly, the whole experience of a young-writers award can actually help all participating young writers (not just the winners) to find a community, find support, and teach them how to handle competition in the creative field.

    some of these are lessons that older early-career writers need, but some of these simply are not. the needs of very young adults are simply different from the needs of older adults.

    now, having said that, not all of these awards are designed to offer young writers that kind of support. and i do agree that there’s a socio-economic component to this. but then, being able to participate in *any* kind of writers award competition presupposes a certain level of economic privilege.

  10. Mary Anne Mohanraj on #

    Justine/readers, I’m curious — what do you think of the Older Writers’ Grant we offer over at the SLF?

    It’s $500 awarded annually to a writer who is fifty years of age or older at the time of grant application, and intended to assist such writers who are just starting to work at a professional level. Does it bother you in the same way that a younger writers thingie does?

  11. Justine on #

    Mary Anne: Sounds like a good idea to me given that there’s not much else around for older writers who are just starting out. I think it’s a necessary corrective.

  12. Kate on #

    Hey Justine, I’m not sure how this is treated o/s but here in the arts sector in Australia “young” and “emerging” are two terms that are invariably linked together. In some art forms that makes sense – dance, for example. For purely physiological reasons, there aren’t too many dancers starting out at the age of 39 or 53.

    But as several people have already commented here, writers can (and frequently do) emerge at any age. I’ve been talking about this long and loud with various funding bodies since I started in my job at QWC, and not getting very far I’m afraid. It has become one of the priority areas marked under the “Access and Equity” policies of government, like Indigenous or regional.

    Having said all that, I haven’t observed any bias from publishers. I do think that if a first-time novelist happens to be a bright young thing then that’s how they’ll be marketed, since it presents a useful publicity angle. But I don’t believe this means there are more young writers being published than older writers, and certainly not because of their age.

  13. Mary Anne Mohanraj on #

    Kate, I hate to say it, but my agent (who was an editor with big US houses for 30 years) says that there’s definitely much less editorial interest in signing a new older writer. He couldn’t explain why to my satisfaction, but apparently, it’s a real issue. 🙁

  14. Justine on #

    Gwenda: Yeah, that’s a gorgeous story. I was took comfort from the very late debut of Elizabeth Jolly. But she weren’t 90. Mind you this is not Kaufman’s fiction debut he’s had screenplays and such before.

  15. lili on #

    we have both in australia. there is an emerging writers festival and a young writers festival. i think both are important.

    young people are more likely to need financial support to create, because their day-jobs pay less, and they are less likely to have partners that can support them, or long-term savings.

    also, young people have less experience being creators, so a lot of them aren’t as good as the 37-year-old (or 90-y-o). So if there were only grants and awards for emerging writers, then young people would probably get less than the not-so-young-people.

    i totally agree with what everyone said about not-so-young-people needing those ’emerging’ opportunities too. But i think we need both.

  16. Gwenda on #

    Novels and scripts are entirely different beasts though, even if you’ve won awards for scripts and stuff.

    I suspect the whole young/emerging writer thing doesn’t actually come from our culture’s annoying obsession with youth (that probably makes it worse), but from some noble idea that young writers needed more support than older ones. That the writing community should support these new guys with potential. The problem is, as you say, that our system is so skewed that older writers often need the support and attention way more than younger ones — new or known (or midlist).

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