Is Lesbian Fiction Ageist? Where Are the Older Women in Lesbian Fiction?

Lesbians over fifty in real life are as commonplace as Cate Blanchett crushes and Miranda Priestly’s steaming-hot lattes. But within the pages of our books, where are the older women?

I’m not talking about older, secondary characters—the quirky neighbor, the feisty mother-in-law, or eccentric co-workers stanning young love. I mean the sheet-ruffling, mind-melting, romantic leads. Where are our fifty-plus media-mogul Cat Grants, detective Olivia Bensons, and hospital chief Miranda Baileys as lesbian protagonists? Strong, fascinating women who love women, who are sexy, complicated, experienced, and, crucially, hold the main storyline?

Too few older protagonists, or not enough demand?

After researching this question for weeks, I think it comes down to this: Readers often say authors aren’t writing fifty-plus protagonists. And many authors believe readers won’t buy them if they do.

On that first point, readers aren’t wrong. With the help of the well-read followers at the Lesbian Review Book Club, as well as authors and readers elsewhere, I’ve compiled a list of books with at least one lesbian protagonist over fifty. The final tally comes to thirty authors who’ve written forty books. (A full list is included at the end.) I’ve excluded any otherworldly and/or unnaturally aged beings to level the playing field.

Obviously there will be a few more out there, but for the purposes of this discussion, it’s sobering to see we’re talking only about forty books out of thousands of lesfic titles.

So, readers are right to point out they can’t read what’s not there. But are authors right, too? Are people reading what is there?
The answer depends on who you ask.

Older women mean sales for Harper Bliss

Lesbian fiction’s MVP of fifty-plus protagonists is Harper Bliss. She has six books on the fifty-plus list, as well as several more characters in their late forties.

Harper, 40, says she’s a proud and respectful holder of a “cougar fetish”. She writes about older ladies because “they come with much more baggage, which can create bigger story opportunities”.

A self-publisher, Harper’s heard all the “older women don’t appeal to readers” arguments.

“(Some authors) think readers of lesfic are young and only want to see themselves reflected,” she says. “I’ve heard the same thing from publishers. I was in talks with a publisher for translation rights of some of my books and they flat-out told me most of my characters were too old to appeal to their audience.”

Has she found having older characters has affected sales?

“On the contrary,” Harper says. “Aside from my books selling really well, I get so many emails from readers telling me how much they appreciate that I write about older characters. This has encouraged me so much—not that I needed much encouragement!—that I started a series called Silver Linings in which all the protagonists are at least in their forties.”

The trade-off for being age-inclusive

Author Karin Kallmaker also hears the clamor for including “under-heard” voices as protagonists, but finds that doing so comes with a sales trade-off.

“My finding, purely anecdotally, is that vocal and engaged readers ask for, read, and talk about books with representation of under-heard voices, but the wider marketplace does not support them,” Karin says. “There’s a clear choice between content and paycheck, putting authors in a real pickle in our hypercompetitive marketplace.”

A five-minute glance at that hypercompetitive marketplace shows there’s definitely a clear push towards young women as protagonists. But not just, young, either. Cover after lesbian fiction cover contains pure female perfection. And inside, it’s often the same: youthful goddesses only need apply.

Fickle focus on perfection in lesbian fiction

So why are flawlessness and younger women the go-to norm in lesbian fiction? Simple: fantasies sell, right? Come on, no mystery here, everyone knows that’s the deal.

But is it? Interestingly, the jury seems to still be out.

At the most recent Las Vegas Golden Crown Literary Society’s conference, one panel examined whether lesfic writers put too much emphasis on “pretty, young, able-bodied, thin women”. Moderator and author Susan X Meagher spoke to reps from the “top five lesfic publishers” as they mulled over that question.

“Three of them said books with characters who did not fit the pretty/young/thin mold sold significantly fewer copies,” Susan says. “One publisher said they didn’t see a fall-off so long as they didn’t make a point of it on the cover or in the blurb. The last said their readers only wanted a good story, and didn’t care what the characters looked like.

“Some of our panel members really like writing outside that pretty/young/thin stereotype, and they didn’t seem to think it hurt their sales. But it’s not like looking at sales of bowling balls. So many factors go into selling a book, and I can’t imagine comparing sales of one to the next with any certitude.”

Our negative stereotypes hurt mold-breaking books

A major factor in book choice comes down to expectations. Many readers love being swept up in a romantic tale. So, naturally, many will avoid a book with any main character they think will stop them being drawn deep into their fantasy.

How then can an author convey that their unstereotypical book is nothing like what a reader has in their mind? That perhaps a negative stereotype about older women (or larger women, or minorities, or people with a disability) will still completely captivate them?

Because why can’t a fifty-year-old CEO in a pencil skirt be seen just as sexy (and more believable) than a twenty-eight-year-old? But how can publishers or authors convey all that in just the few seconds that a reader glances at a cover and scans a blurb seeking their next escapist hit?

Selling a sexy Helen Mirren, not your gran

Author Clare Ashton, who has embraced a few fifty-plus lead characters, sums up the problem.

“Part of the difficulty is writing a blurb that overcomes preconceptions,” Clare says. “Your novel may very well feature Helen Mirren but making her come across in those few lines as anything other than your gran in wrinkled stockings is challenging. I’ve found once readers are into a book though, the older woman always steals the show.”

Being enraptured by show-stealing feisty older women is a common reaction for readers who’ve taken the plunge on books with older leads. However all of this may sound like a lot of hard work to authors. It’s incredibly easy to drop a protagonist’s age, shrug, and move on. So why should they even bother?

Older experiences are different

Author Jeannie Levig, who writes forty and fifty-plus protagonists “and probably soon heading into sixty”, sees older leads as important for several reasons.

“It’s important for mature women to be able to see characters their age still falling in love and enjoying a sexual relationship,” Jeannie says. “I know I am much different now than when I was in my twenties and thirties, so I experience things differently…

“I know more now and have a deeper understanding of why things are the way they are, and why some people might do things. I’d like to see those views and ways of being in what I’m reading, and I certainly put them in the books I write.”

Visibility counts for readers

For 64-year-old Australian author Jane Waterton, it’s about the visibility. She found it frustrating seeing only the same kinds of protagonists in lesbian fiction.

“I was getting tired of reading about six-foot, green-eyed, gorgeous women with the physical dexterity of an octopus and the sexual energy to match it,” Jane says. “When I looked in the mirror and looked at all my friends, I saw something very different.

“I wanted a book that portrayed older lesbians in a positive, sexy, feisty way; that celebrated growing older – and acknowledged that they had been there, done that, and trashed the T-shirt.”

So she wrote her own – a humorous tale about a motley, amusing group of queer women in an Australian retirement home, Times of Our Lives.

“We are all getting older and we now realize we want books that we can relate to. There are authors out there writing books with entirely older lesbian characters, but we are still the minority and you have to search for them.”

Older women have sex too…get over it!

As for any authors or readers who assume that only hot young things twirl naked from the chandeliers, Jane says this: “They often forget that sexuality is not just the predilection of youth. Guess what…older lesbians are just as sexual as young ones. However, many young people seem to have a real problem with thinking about old people having sex.

“They also forget that older lesbians have survived a great deal in their life. We are not ready to be put in a nursing home with a warm mug of cocoa. Some (authors) write wonderful characters, but don’t stereotype us. Just because we are older, doesn’t mean we are suddenly all the same!”

Jane believes the sky should be the limit as to what older protagonists get up to in books.

“I love the thought of octogenarian superheroes,” she says. “One of the great things about getting older is your invisibility by the mainstream. You could cheerfully go and fight crime, beat up the bad guys, create chaos and mayhem, and never be suspected!

“I currently have an amazing plot that involves kidnapping, blackmail, and saving the free world, by a small group of 60-year-olds. If I can work out how to put it on paper without getting arrested, I’ll write it!”

The Over-Fifty Protagonists Lesfic Masterlist

If you know of any more titles, add them to the comments so we can create a definitive list. No immortals, though. Sorry to fans of vampires, faeries, and superheroes!

Brenda Adcock Pipeline and Reiko’s Garden
Lynn Ames Eyes on the Stars
J.A. Armstrong By Design series
Clare Ashton After Mrs Hamilton and The Goodmans
Marianne Banks Keepsake Self Storage
Petrina Binney Sex, Death & Canapés
Harper Bliss No Greater Love Than Mine, In The Distance There is Light, No Other Love, Seasons of Love, A Swing at Love, French Kissing: Season Four
Andrea Bramhall Swordfish and Lost for Words
Avery Cassell Behrouz Gets Lucky
Addison M. Conley Falling for Love
Jean Copeland The Second Wave
R.D. DeLisle Miranda and Colette
Genevieve Fortin Dingo’s Recovery
Gerri Hill The Roundabout
Karin Kallmaker Touchwood and Roller Coaster
Lola Keeley The Music and the Mirror
Kathleen Knowles Warm November
Catherine Lane Heartwood
Jeannie Levig A Heart To Call Home and Embracing the Dawn
Clare Lydon It Had to Be You
KG MacGregor Mulligan
Martha Miller Retirement Plan
Cindy Rizzo Getting Back
Jane Rule Memory Board
Diane Salvatore Paxton Court
Alison R. Solomon Along Came the Rain
Jen Silver Arc Over Time
Alex Spear Out
Kate Sweeney Love At Last
Shelley Thrasher Autumn Spring
Yolanda Wallace The War Within
Jane Waterton Times of Our Lives
Nancy Werking Poling Out of the Pumpkin Shell
Caren J. Werlinger She Sings of Old, Unhappy, Far-Off Things and Neither Present Time
Kieran York Appointment with a Smile
Fiona Zedde Hungry For It

Copyright picture above: unsplash.com

Lee Winter is an award-winning veteran newspaper journalist who has covered courts, crime, news, features and humor writing. Now a full-time author and part-time editor, Lee is also a two-time Lambda Literary Award finalist and a double Golden Crown Literary Award winner. She has just published Under Your Skin with Ylva.

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About the Author : Lee Winter

37 Comments

  1. Petrina Binney September 5, 2018 at 17:24 - Reply

    Sorry, I was late to the party.
    I have a midlife coming-out story, out on Amazon.
    ‘Sex, Death & Canapés’ by Petrina Binney.
    Fifty-something protagonist, married to a lecherous bully for twenty years, falls for her beautiful neighbour.

    • Lee Winter September 6, 2018 at 01:02 - Reply

      That sounds awesome Petrina. Thanks for adding your book. The more the merrier. 🙂 It’s now on the list.

  2. Aj September 5, 2018 at 20:40 - Reply

    It has always amazed me how these twenty-somethings manage to be CEOs, PhDs etc. Bar some Snapchat-style invention, that’s just not feasible. A 40+ woman in a senior position in a major company, however, that’s believable and potentially sexy.

    Thanks for the list Lee, I’ll have to check them out.

    • Lee Winter September 6, 2018 at 01:04 - Reply

      I know, right? I’ve always thought that was bizarre. It doesn’t stop me reading those books half the time because I’m such a sucker for CEO stories, but it never felt as believable as a 40 or 50-something boss pivoting around in her chair to eyeball us.

      • Aj September 6, 2018 at 13:46 - Reply

        Oh god, the pivot. It gets me every time.
        Of course when I try it I just end up spinning too far, which ruins the whole thing. I do, however, have a killer ‘over the glasses’ silence inducing stare. Thankfully no recipient has yet twigged that when I do it I can’t really see them properly.

        In all seriousness though, I’ve always found maturity and mastery very sexy.

  3. Kathleen Knowled September 5, 2018 at 20:56 - Reply

    You missed my 50 plus romance Warm November
    Kathleen Knowles

    • Lee Winter September 6, 2018 at 04:45 - Reply

      Thanks Kathleen. 🙂 Happy to add to the list.

  4. CQ September 5, 2018 at 22:58 - Reply

    Can’t say I wasn’t surprised to read about the protagonist shifted in by Clare Ashton, but it turns out to be really great, and I’m too looking for some not stereotypes to read, it’s more genuine after all.

  5. Jess Lea September 6, 2018 at 00:44 - Reply

    I love a middle-aged or older protagonist – they have had more time to store up secrets, grudges, past lives, hidden joys… Plus, once you’ve over (say) 35 yourself, you don’t necessarily want to read about teenagers all the time!

    • Lee Winter September 6, 2018 at 01:04 - Reply

      Ahhh Jess, nailed it in one. I’m going to quote this. Everywhere. 🙂

  6. Wynnde September 6, 2018 at 00:47 - Reply

    Thanks for this, Lee. I’ve read several on the list and have a bunch to add to the TBR list. Roslyn Sinclair’s “The Lily and the Crown” is a great read and I believe it meets your criteria.

    • Lee Winter September 6, 2018 at 04:45 - Reply

      Hi Wynnde. I did consider Lily but the protagonist is mentioned as in her forties not in her fifties. Fabulous book. Really loved it.

  7. Jeannie Levig September 6, 2018 at 01:45 - Reply

    WOW! Thank you, Lee, for this blog. Visibility is everything. I think there are a lot more readers out there looking for older protagonists, and a blog like this helps to point people in the right direction. Thank you for including my titles. I just wanted to add that I have two more books coming out within the next year that fall into this category. A Wish Upon A Star, a contemporary romance with both leading ladies in their fifties, will be out in December of this year, and Embracing the Moon, a companion book to Embracing the Dawn with one lead in her fifties, is scheduled for release in August of 2019.

    Also, just to make it easier for readers who might be looking for my titles, my last name is mispelled in the list above. Look for Jeannie Levig. (There’s no “a” in my last name.)

    Thank you again for this fabulous blog.

    • Lee Winter September 6, 2018 at 04:46 - Reply

      Hi Jeannie – Two more titles is awesome. I’m delighted to hear this. Sorry about the typo on the masterlist. Your name’s now fixed. Cheers!

    • Jeannie Levig September 6, 2018 at 06:51 - Reply

      Hey Lee–no worries, and thank you. 😉

  8. Butch DK September 6, 2018 at 02:16 - Reply

    “Behrouz Gets Lucky” by Avery Cassell, published 2016 by Cleis Press. Two middle aged dykes, one a butch gardener top, the other a genderqueer librarian bottom, find each other in contemporary San Francisco. It’s a kinky, smutty, sexy romance and BDSM romp between two very unique characters.

    • Lee Winter September 6, 2018 at 04:46 - Reply

      Oh that really sounds so different. I love it. It’s now on the list.

      • Butch DK September 6, 2018 at 06:52 - Reply

        One of the things I love about “Behrouz…” is that the author includes the characters’ physical limitations, mentions aching muscles and bones and conditions of aging without being overbearing about it. It all feels very natural and familiar (says my middle-aged self!).

        • Lee Winter September 6, 2018 at 08:17 - Reply

          That really is unusual. Good for her. It makes a change from all that perfection. 🙂

        • Aj September 7, 2018 at 08:37 - Reply

          It also features sexts written in the style of e.e. cummings! Be still my nerdy heart 😊

  9. Cristina September 6, 2018 at 07:20 - Reply

    I’ve read books with older women leads by Harper Bliss, Fiona Zedde, Jeannie Levig, and Karin Kallmaker. Each book was superbly written and emotionally satisfying. Can’t recommend those authors enough. Let me tell you, had me some tears and the warm fuzzies. I could relate to many things happening emotionally with their characters and with many things their characters said. It’s validating to see some of yourself on the pages you read but also rewarding to see different points of view and experiences illuminated on the page.

    PS. If a lesfic novel features a Helen Mirren type—preferably her assassin character in the movies Red and Red 2—I’ll be all over it. Catnip. Kryptonite. What would you do for a Klondike Bar.

    PPS. Did someone say she was writing a book with women in their 60s who are crime fighters? Sign me the heck up!

    Lee, thanks for this list! I will now proceed to live on ramen alone so I can purchase & read all these books.

  10. Lee Winter September 6, 2018 at 08:16 - Reply

    You’re welcome, regarding the list! And ramen-starvation diets seem like a small price to pay for all those fifty-plus ladies! I, too, would love to see a Helen Mirren assassin in a lesfic. And sign me up for Jane Waterton’s crime-fighting book too!

  11. Janie September 6, 2018 at 13:49 - Reply

    Thank you Lee Winter for this blog. I didn’t come out until my 40’ s and this year turned 60. I am not a skinny Minnie but I am still asexual being.

    • Lee Winter September 6, 2018 at 14:09 - Reply

      You’re welcome Janie. I am guessing you meant a sexual, not asexual (not that there’s anything wrong with either one!). And yes, it’d be great for all us not-quite-so spring chickens to have a lot more than forty books to read.

  12. Vanda September 6, 2018 at 14:12 - Reply

    Great article. I’m really curious to see what happens when my two young women–in Juliana (Book 1) they’re 18 and 24 in 1941–get older in the later books. Someday they will be 50 and over. I can’t believe my readers will stop reading just because of that. And no way will Juliana be less sexual at 50 than she was at 24.

    • Lee Winter September 7, 2018 at 00:35 - Reply

      I’ll bet they keep on reading, Vanda!

    • Liz Caruso September 17, 2018 at 18:08 - Reply

      Vanda, I absolutely love growing older along with the characters in a long series. Those are always the books that I most love!

  13. Celeste September 6, 2018 at 21:34 - Reply

    As a fairly new reader of the lesfic genre, I find my choice of story line depends on my mind set at the time. Sure I indulge in an erotic, sexy romp for fantasizing, or a romance for the warm escapism. However, I don’t pick the story for the age of characters. In fact, two of my favorite leads are Victoria and Genevieve in The Love and Law Series by Blythe Rippon. Whether they’re over 50, I don’t recall. And then there is one of the first books I read by you-The Red Files with Catherine and Lauren. As the older, more mature woman, Catherine is completely intriguing. Bottom line-if the storyline is captivating, I’m hooked with or without those blue/green eyed stunning goddesses of perfection.

    • Lee Winter September 7, 2018 at 00:35 - Reply

      Hi Celeste, Great to hear you found Catherine Ayers intriguing. I find the more experiences in life characters have had, which usually comes with age, the more interesting they are, as they have so much more happening under the hood.

  14. Baxter Clare Trautman September 7, 2018 at 02:28 - Reply

    Great article. My LA Franco character is in her fifties and still sexually active. I plan on having her continue aging because I enjoy reading about older lesbians as much as I do writing them. We’re different creatures and I think the older lesbian market is ripe for plundering. I’ve also given Franco a young daughter who may be a lesbian as well…

  15. Robin DeLisle September 7, 2018 at 05:38 - Reply

    Don’t forget Miranda’s sequel, Colette, by R.D. DeLisle! 🙂

    • Lee Winter September 7, 2018 at 06:42 - Reply

      Thanks for letting us know, Robin. That’s done!

  16. Trish September 7, 2018 at 08:28 - Reply

    I compared my list to yours and these are ones i can add ..
    Baxter Clare Trautman – The River Within, Hold of the Bone
    CK Paynter – Survived by Her Longtime Companion
    Clifford Henderson – Rest Home Runaways
    Dorothy Tell – Wilderness Trek, Murder at the Red Rook Ranch, Hallelujah Murders
    Elana Dykewoman – Beyond the Pale
    Jen Silver – Starting Over
    Kate Sweeney – Who Wouldn’t Love Me, Second Time Around, I Love You Again
    Katherine Forrest – High Desert
    Kathleen Collins – Risk of Change
    Kieran York – Earthen Trinkets, Careful Flowers
    Lois Cloaric Hart – Walking the Labyrinth
    Lori Lake- Snow Moon Rising, Ricochet In Time
    Maria Ciletti – Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow
    Martha Miller – Nine Nights on the Windy Tree, Widow
    May Sarton – The Education of Harriet Hatfield
    Renee Bess – The Butterfly Moments
    Sandra Moran – Letters Never Sent
    Valerie Taylor – Prism

    • Lee Winter September 7, 2018 at 09:21 - Reply

      Awesome work and additions there, thanks Trish. I know a few people are working their way down my list, so I hope they move on to your list next!

  17. Jax Meyer September 10, 2018 at 05:47 - Reply

    My debut novel, Dal segno, has a 39-40 year old POV main character and a 52 year old main character. I hit single digits on the bestseller list and have stayed there in my first week. I don’t know how it will do long term but so far people are enjoying it. Maybe more people are looking for this now, or at least willing to give it a shot? I know that I’m turning 40 I prefer more mature stories that I can relate to or learn from.
    https://www.amazon.com/Dal-Segno-Jax-Meyer-ebook/dp/B07H1SMRHN/

  18. LYNN M NOWAK October 16, 2018 at 18:35 - Reply

    I loved this article about lesbian love when the main characters are older. I hope more authors write them, because I will read them! The lists also provided me with books I hadn’t heard of. I will be searching my online book stores. Thanks so much.

  19. Louise December 4, 2018 at 14:49 - Reply

    A book I just finished called: Secret Love :A Lesbian Romance (Carmen and Rose: A Love to Remember Book 1 by Cassandra Barnes features a 50 year old and a 22 year old. This is a great love story.

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