I had the pleasure of discussing literary magazines on a panel at The Poets & Writers live event in Portland, Oregon, this October. The Q&A included The Masters Review, and other local lit mags Tin House, Poor Claudia, and Gertrude.
The bulk of attendees were new to publishing. While a few had published novels, short stories, essays, and poems, most were seeking practical advice on where to submit, how to do so, and what to expect from the process. They wanted to know what topics we were interested in and how we selected stories. They were a group of doctors, educators, parents, and book lovers. Most of them were over fifty.
At the meet and greet later that evening, many attendees were curious how The Masters Review identifies an emerging writer. I received questions like, “Do you have age restrictions? I’m not young, but I’m almost done with the final draft of my first novel.” Another writer at our booth had just signed with an agent. She said, “I’ll be sixty-four next year. No under-forty lists for me!”
It makes intuitive sense that many new and emerging writers are young. They’re out of college, many of them recent MFA graduates, and after years of early practice they’re finding success in publishing.
But it also seems there’s a bias that encourages a focus on young writers. We live in a culture that applauds early achievement, as evident in lists like The New Yorker’s Twenty Under Forty, Granta’s 20 British Authors Under 40, The National Book Award’s 5 Under 35, The PEN American Emerging Writer’s Prize (writers under 35), or Narrative Magazine’s 30 Below Contest, which remain exclusive to writers of a certain age.
Ideas that are “new” and “fresh” — both terms that sell well and generate attention — are easy to associate with youth. But consider the practicalities preventing people from dedicating the time to write until later in life: jobs, families, and education are just a few of many examples that, when examined, amount to rich histories. Older authors have the benefit of knowledge from experience, and they bring maturity, perspective, and emotional honesty to their writing.
While lists like those above recognize extremely accomplished and well-deserving writers — and funnel our attention to new work — they offer a limited focus. By categorizing writers according to age rather than experience, a number of new and talented voices are missing from the spotlight.
There are far fewer lists restricted to debut authors over the age of forty. In an interview with George Saunders, The New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman says, “You published your book Civil Warland in Bad Decline when you were thirty-seven, which is a little late by current standards…” And she’s right about that standard, though it’s a shame this is true.
If you were to compile a list of accomplished writers who published later in life you would find the following: Charles Bukowski (published his first novel, Post Office, at 51), Helen Dewitt (The Last Samurai, age 44), Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, age 49), Anna Sewell (Black Beauty, age 57), Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes, age 66), and Mary Higgins Clark (age 41). A friend of mine, Susan Hill Long recently published her debut Whistle in the Dark, which won the Oregon Book Award for Children’s Literature. She was born in the 60s.
The Masters Review focuses exclusively on new and emerging writers, offering a quality platform for writers who are at the start of their careers. We define an emerging writer by experience in publishing, rather than age. Our qualification is that submitters have not yet published a novel-length work (not including short story collections) by a major publisher at the time of submission. We feel, even those writers with a few publications under their belts are still proving themselves in a competitive industry and could benefit from increased exposure.
There is a wonderful group of magazines, publishers, and organizations that qualify new or emerging writers in a similar way. Glimmer Train, the storied literary magazine, defines emerging authors as, “writers whose fiction has not appeared in a print publication with a circulation over 5,000.” The Center for Fiction’s Emerging Writer’s Fellowship qualifies its writers this way: “Applicants can be of any age, but must be in the early stages of their careers as fiction writers and will not have had the support needed to achieve major recognition for their work.” And Ploughshares holds an emerging writer’s contest, “for writers who have never published or self-published a book.”
I explained our guidelines to the writers at our Poets & Writers booth and they were relieved. Still, their confusion reflects a gap that exists for writers of a certain age finding home for their work as “emerging” “new” or “debut.” It’s wonderful to see publications advocating for writers of all ages, but it seems there is still work to be done.
by Kim Winternheimer