The Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is proof success doesn’t have to happen at an early age

Barbara Kingsolver is the eldest author on this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist (Handout/Evan Kafka/PA)
Barbara Kingsolver is the eldest author on this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist (Handout/Evan Kafka/PA)

The 2023 Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist has been announced – and half the titles on it are debut novels by older women.

The youngest among them is Priscilla Morris, 49, for Black Butterflies, which explores life inside the Siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s.

It’s not unusual for the shortlist to feature established authors from their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond – such as Margaret Atwood, 83, who’s made the list three times. The eldest this year is Barbara Kingsolver, 68, for Demon Copperhead. But the remarkable thing about the debut authors on the 2023 shortlist, is that their first novels weren’t published until mid-life or later.

Judging panel chairwoman Louise Minchin, 54, said: “As an older writer, I just think, ‘Wow, that is just incredible’. It could have gone either way, but we should be celebrating writers of all ages and not discriminating against either younger or older writers” – adding that the life experience of the authors was evident in their “exquisitely written” works.

Whether or not you’re a writer, is there a message here for everyone?

Life and business coach Natalie Viglione, 44, who runs Team Gu and the Disrupt Now Program, says the shortlist is an “amazing” example of women “creating success on their own terms”.

She continues: “These women are breaking down stereotypes about age and success. Through these nominations and their choice to start writing later in life, these women are paving the way for future generations to follow their dreams on their own terms. We need to inspire women to believe in themselves and their abilities, no matter what societal pressures they may face.

“For far too long, women have been told that ‘success’ has to happen before a certain age to be truly valid, but this outdated and unfair expectation has caused many women to feel like they’ve failed if they haven’t achieved certain milestones by a certain age, as well as lead to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt,” Viglione adds.

“The truth is, success can come at any age, and we need to break down these limiting beliefs that have held women back for so long.”

Community and connection 

Sharmadean Reid MBE, 38, founder and CEO of open-access women’s network The Stack World, highlights how this is about women of all ages, too.

“Most of our members are millennial and Gen Z, and one of the things we talk about often is the lack of intergenerational connectivity among women today. And we actively encourage them to connect with women who are in the next generation, because they have these incredible experiences and knowledge that could be shared and passed out,” she says.

“I also say to them, especially ones who are still struggling with what they want to do with their lives, that some of the most successful people I know have not found their thing until they’re 40 plus. One of the most common examples is Vera Wang [aged 40 when she launched as a wedding dress designer], but lots of famous people didn’t start until later on.

“There’s this real myth and allure of success in youth – ‘Oh, they sold their first business at 21’ or something like that – when actually, so much can happen later in life.

“We’ve got wind in our sails yet,” adds Reid. “I’m not remotely scared of ambition in my age. I think I’m going to live several lifetimes, and I encourage my members to think the same.”

She notes that women who join The Stack are often at a transitional point in their lives – “and transition is always difficult”. But regardless of when it’s happening, there is power in making connections. “I don’t think the desire for friendship and community dies at any age,” Reid adds.

Can age be a super power?

For Debby Penton, 50, managing director of tech PR firm Wildfire, getting a bit older has brought a fresh wave of ambition. Earlier this year, she launched Wildfire’s sister company KT2, and also recently went back to university to study behavioural science.

“I’ve found a renewed appetite for learning,” says Penton. “I think, as you get older and your children grow up, you free up mental capacity to apply to different things. You realise you’ve reached most of the obvious milestones and then wonder, ‘What’s next?’

“Also, my first degree was very much a means to an end – the end being to leave home. My Master’s is much more about studying something I’m genuinely passionate about. It’s been a very different experience,” she adds.

Penton is positive she’ll pursue even more things in the decades to come.

“I do think there is more learning ahead for me. I loved art and being creative when I was younger – a time when we didn’t have much else to do, before mobile phones and the internet. I definitely think I’ll come back to those passions when I start to slow down at work, but I’m not there yet, as I do still have a business, a degree and teenage boys at home that need to be fed.”

She believes the “world is slowly shifting how it views older women”, adding: “We are starting to see more older women celebrated in the arts/media/business, and there is more recognition for the challenges we face (menopause etc) and more opportunities to champion each other. There is a long way to go, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

Recognising barriers

Of course, it’s not as simple as just saying, ‘Go for it’. PR coach and business mentor Natalie Trice, 48, acknowledges there can be multiple barriers and factors that come into the picture.

“As much as we are making progress in terms of breaking barriers and smashing glass ceilings, when it comes to women pursuing their goals, more than ever, women are juggling work and life.

“Many not only have children to care for, but often parents as well, and this can absolutely impact the trajectory of their careers, as well as their confidence. Add fertility treatment, pregnancy, maternity leave and perimenopause/menopause, and there’s a whole raft of issues that could make progress hard.”

Finding ways forward

A lot of these things depend on external support and structures, but Trice is a big believer in looking at what steps you can take: “I always work with clients to see how they can identify what blocks they have when it comes to progression, and what they can do to start deconstructing those, so they can move ahead.”

She also highlights the power of role models and representation. “Watching someone else’s journey can give us the energy we need to make changes and take the risks we need to grow. We need to move away from the ageism that can pigeonhole so many people, and instead celebrate successes across the board at every age,” says Trice.

“Yes, there could be challenges on the way, but if you know you have a goal, don’t let age be one of the factors that stops you.”