On The Edge: Boomer Lit

It’s difficult to imagine that those 1960s doe-eyed children who brought the world’s attention to Vietnam War protests and love-ins are old enough to qualify as senior citizens. But they’ve finally matured—and so has the fiction being written by and for them.

Seventy-eight million baby boomers are alive today and comprise an enormous chunk of the reading public. As a result, there’s both a growing demand for fiction that deals with age-appropriate issues and a tendency for boomer-age writers to tackle parallel subjects in their fiction. More and more baby-boomer protagonists, both in the genre and literary arenas, are dealing with serious life issues such as unexpected illness, failed marriages and lost dreams.

New imprints are even being created with boomers in mind, including HarperCollins’ HarperLuxe, which features large-print books, and Hachette Book Group’s Springboard Press, a line of nonfiction aimed specifically at boomers.

Several writers and publishing professionals share their thoughts on this growing book-buying demographic.

STARTING OVER

Lesley Dormen’s first novel-in-stories, The Best Place to Be, not only features a 50-something character, it was written after she turned 50. After two decades of making her living writing for magazines, Dormen came back to fiction writing through The Writers Studio in Manhattan, where she now teaches an advanced fiction-writing class. At the notion that turning to a long-held dream later in life is a common boomer trait, she laughs. “I’m practically the head of the class of the boomer generation,” she says.

Dormen admits that books written about 20-, 30- and even 40-somethings rarely interest her as a reader anymore. She found she was drawn to subject matter that was age appropriate for her stage in life.

As Dormen developed The Best Place to Be’s main character, she found the confidence to tell the protagonist’s story at different ages throughout the book. But Dormen’s writing style and sensibility were definitively shaped by her early experiences. “The obvious markers of my generation are sexual freedom, women’s liberation, music and war,” she says. “Everybody is shocked to discover their own mortality, but I think the boomers are still not convinced.”

Dormen’s editor at Simon & Schuster, Marysue Rucci, saw Dormen’s book as the mature woman’s The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing (by Melissa Bank). “I absolutely identified with Lesley’s book,” Rucci says. “That Grace, her protagonist, was middle-aged wasn’t a deterrent.”

Rucci, who is also executive editor and vice president of Simon & Schuster, concedes that the next step beyond chick lit and mommy lit may very well be boomer lit. “Certain writers focus on biographical issues, so their second or third books might showcase a middle-aged protagonist facing middle-aged issues—think Tom Perrotta or Jennifer Weiner—whereas their debut might have been a coming-of-age novel,” Rucci says. “But I wouldn’t draw such a direct corollary.”

Trend or not, boomer fiction keeps making appearances, and some books are even written by younger authors. Alice Sebold’s novel, The Almost Moon, features Helen, an over-50 woman who kicks off the book by putting her dementia-addled mother out of her misery in a compelling but horrifying act of murder.

THE MID-LIFE CRISIS

Kim Green is the author of Paging Aphrodite and Live a Little, which features a classic boomer life crisis. While not a boomer herself, Green is the child of boomers, which, she says, influenced the creation of her protagonist, Raquel, in Live a Little.

“It’s kind of natural for the children of boomers to write about them,” she says. “After you’ve purged the urge to write about characters who have gone through what you have, it’s natural to imagine a stage of life you’ll go through next.”

Green’s character Raquel is a boomer grappling with boomer issues. First she’s erroneously diagnosed with breast cancer and then becomes a celebrity promoting the cause on local TV. Success causes her to question her stale marriage, and to wish her teenage children were more independent. She then returns to the art she abandoned years before to renewed acclaim, and takes up with a younger man. When her cancer diagnosis turns out false, Raquel is too attached to her new life to let it go.

“What I felt I was tapping into with Raquel is something I see in boomer women—this dissatisfaction and unhappiness because they didn’t have a lot of choices about where their lives were going to lead,” Green says. “My primary focus was to deal with the frustration of a woman of Raquel’s generation, a woman who felt she had lost her dream in part because she had a family. This is the classic case with boomers—they wanted it all but couldn’t get it and have ended up feeling as if they didn’t do anything very well.”

Green was surprised, however, to find out that the one area readers have responded well to in early readings of Live a Little and Paging Aphrodite is the sex lives of older characters. “I think readers expect older people to have a sex life and a sexual identity, and instead of finding that repellent, they find it compelling,” she says.

THE VOICE OF EXPERIENCE

Amy Einhorn, now at G.P. Putnam’s Sons, was the acquiring editor of Live a Little at 5 Spot Publishing, a Hachette Book Group imprint. “I’d very much like to publish books with older protagonists, both male and female,” she says. “For the same reason that older people are often more interesting than younger people—they’ve lived more, they have more knowledge—these things show up on the page.” She cites Lorna Landvik’s Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons and Lolly Winston’s Happiness Sold Separately as successful examples.

Ellen Meister, author of the novels Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA and The Smart One (due out August 2008), has noticed a definite trend in book-buying audiences. “Whether I’ve attended an event for a literary author like Alice Hoffman or a commercial author like Susan Isaacs, the people sitting in those chairs and buying the hardcover books are all women 50 and over.”

While Meister is on the younger end of the boomer generation, and her characters are often younger than herself, she admits to a tendency to give her characters boomer issues. In Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA her characters grapple with illness, second romances, unpleasant relatives and the politics of PTA life. In The Smart One, which she calls a sister story, the protagonist, Bev, is recently divorced after catching her husband cheating. “She had been an aspiring artist, and because she couldn’t make it, she did the next best thing and married one,” Meister says. Bev’s plot revolves around trying to pursue her true calling—teaching—but in order to do so, she has to move across the country and away from her family.

Meister says that the echoes of her baby-boomer youth had a major effect on who she is as a person and how she looks at and approaches the world. “I’m in that funny straddling kind of place for a baby boomer because I’m not quite old enough to have been at Woodstock, and my peers didn’t go to Vietnam, but I was old enough to be glued to the television,” she says. “That era was very present during my formative years. A lot of people my age seem to have completely forgotten about it and sometimes I just want to scream out, ‘Does anybody remember the sixties?’ ”

A SENSE OF OPTIMISM

In Nancy Thayer’s series, The Hot Flash Club, age-related issues are front and center. The series stars five women between the ages of 50 and 62. They meet at a party and share their life problems that come with getting older. The series was a departure for Thayer, who has published 14 novels on family-related themes, but not specifically for older women. “The philosophy in New York is that people won’t buy books about older women,” she says. But 23 million women are over the age of 50, she points out.

The books have been well received, says Margaret Ruley, her agent at the Jane Rotrosen Agency. Yet the age group of the characters wasn’t the influencing factor behind Ruley’s decision to represent the books. “I knew Nancy had a hit when I was reading her manuscript, clutching my sides, doubled-up with laughter and thinking how much fun it would be to share with my friends,” she says. “I also found much to identify with as her characters navigated such a challenging time in life.”

Thayer says she’s received positive feedback from readers. “I think women are so glad to see other women who have dignity even though sometimes their bodies make them feel foolish,” she says.

Ruley points to other commercially successful books that feature older protagonists, such as Robert Dalby’s Waltzing at the Piggly Wiggly and Peter Pezzelli’s Francesca’s Kitchen and Italian Lessons.

Thayer says her books offer women a sense of optimism. “Women our age are living longer, and we’re more healthy and active than our mothers [were at this age],” she says. “So there’s this sense that we have a nice big chunk of time and we can do things that we haven’t done before.”

Dormen says her generation worries about marginalization. “It still seems unfathomable that we’re not center stage, not young, not the center of everything,” she says.

It’s clear that boomers at any age will continue to find—and pen—reflections of themselves in literature.

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