“Mary Higgins Clark and the Debut Authoresses of A Certain Age” (by Kevin Mims)

At the end of January, readers and fans received the news that Mary Higgins Clark had died at the age of ninety-two. Along with her status as best-selling author, Clark was counted as a teacher and inspirational figure to many in the mystery community and beyond. In this post, avid reader, essayist, and short-story writer Kevin Mims (who often writes for us here) discusses Clark’s career in the context of publishing trends and changing social dynamics for women writers in the 1970s.—Janet Hutchings

The recent death of legendary crime writer Mary Higgins Clark inspired long appraisals of the woman and her work in numerous journalistic forums such as the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, National Public Radio, Buzzfeed, and the Guardian. These pieces rightly praised her productivity and her work ethic. They noted the many obstacles she had to overcome in life. Her father died young, when Mary was eleven, having worked himself to death during the Great Depression. Her mother had to take in boarders in order to keep her children fed. A few years later, a beloved brother of Mary’s died. Mary Higgins married Warren Clark in 1949 and the couple proceeded to produce five children. But after fourteen years of marriage Warren died suddenly, leaving Mary a widow. Undaunted, Mary set out to become a writer in order to support her family. Her first novel, Aspire to the Heavens, about the love affair of George and Martha Washington, was not a financial success. It wasn’t until 1978, at the age of 51 that Mary Higgins Clark found her true calling—writing suspense novels. Her debut thriller was Where Are The Children?, a book that became a monster bestseller and has been through dozens and dozens of printings. Her next few books were so successful that, in 1988, according to the New York Times, her publisher signed her to “what was believed to be the first-ever eight-figure agreement involving a single author. The multi-book contract guaranteed her at least $10.1 million.” The investment paid off big time. In 1989, her novel While My Pretty One Sleeps was the tenth best-selling novel of the year. Loves Music, Loves to Dance was the tenth best-selling novel of 1991. All Around the Town was the tenth best-selling novel of 1992 (she seems to have had a fondness for the Number-Ten spot). She went on to hit the year-end bestseller list again and again.

All of the biographical info that appeared in the obituaries published by the New York Times and others was not only fascinating but also a testament to what a powerhouse Clark was, both as an author and as a woman. But none of the obits I read mentioned that, by essentially beginning her writing career in late middle-age during the 1970s, Mary Higgins Clark was not alone, but rather in the vanguard of an interesting trend. The 1970s and 1980s were, for some reason, an era rich in novels by women who got a late start in the writing game. The fifth best-selling novel of 1978 was Scruples, a first novel by Judith Krantz, who was born just sixteen days after Mary Higgins Clark. The sixth best-selling novel of 1978 was Evergreen, a debut novel written by Belva Plain, who turned sixty-three in October of that year. Two years later, in 1980, they would meet on the bestseller list again, when Krantz’s novel, Princess Daisy finished the year at number four and Plain’s novel Random Wind finished at number seven. In 1977, one year before Krantz and Plain got their start, sixty-year-old British writer Penelope Fitzgerald published her first novel, The Golden Child. The eighth best-selling novel of 1974 was I Heard the Owl Call My Name, a first novel by Margaret Craven, who would turn seventy-three that year (she was the only woman on the year-end list of the ten best-selling novels in 1974). In 1981, Canadian author Valerie Fitzgerald, born in the same year as Judith Krantz, published her first (and only) novel, Zemindar, a massive, award-winning historical romance that is often compared with M.M. Kaye’s The Far Pavilions and has remained in print for nearly forty years now. In 1983, Mary Wesley, another Brit, published her first novel, Jumping the Queue, at the age of seventy-one. A year later, American Harriet Doer won a National Book Award for her first novel Stones for Ibarra, published when she was seventy-four. The fifteenth best-selling novel of 1979 was Ruth Beebe Hill’s massive (and controversial) book about American Indian life Hanta Yo. The author was sixty-six at the time and never published another novel, despite living to the age of 102. Romance novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford published the first of her many bestsellers, A Woman of Substance, in 1979, the year she turned forty-six. V.C. Andrews, whose trademark was gothic horror mixed with incest, published Flowers in the Attic, her first and most famous best-selling novel in 1979, when she was fifty-six. Cynthia Freeman first hit the year-end bestseller list in 1980, when her novel Come Pour the Wine was the eleventh best-selling book of the year. She made her literary debut in 1975, the year she turned sixty, with the novel A World Full of Strangers. One of the most interesting literary stories of the era was the publication of Helen Hooven Santmyer’s novel . . . And Ladies of the Club, which was the sixth best-selling novel of 1984, the year in which the author turned eighty-nine. It wasn’t her first book. The author wrote three novels between 1922 and 1930 but managed to get only two of them published at the time. Neither of them sold well or drew much attention. She then remained almost entirely off the literary radar until, very late in life, when she published the massive (approximately 1,400 pages) bestseller that made her famous. Another literary oddity of the era was The Life and Times of Heidi Abromowitz, a first novel by Joan Rivers, which was the ninth bestselling novel of 1984, the year that the author turned fifty-one.

On the younger side of this trend were Toni Morrison, who published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970 at the age of forty, and Colleen McCullough, who published her second (and best known) novel The Thorn Birds in 1977 when she was forty (it finished the year at number two on the New York Times bestseller list, behind only The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkein. Tolkein was dead by then, so McCullough outsold every other living novelist that year). The following year, 1978, Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey made her literary debut when her first novel A Woman of Independent Means was published. She was in her fortieth year. In 1980, at the age of forty-two, Jean Auel practically invented a new genre with the publication of her novel The Clan of the Cave Bear, an epic tale about prehistoric humans. Auel and Krantz would meet on the year-end bestsellers list in 1982, when Krantz’s Mistral’s Daughter captured the number-five spot and Auel’s The Valley of Horses captured the sixth spot. Auel’s novel The Mammoth Hunters was the best-selling novel of 1985, and her The Plains of Passage was the best-selling novel of 1990.

Plenty of women came late to the writing game prior to the 1970s and 1980s, and plenty of women have come late to the game since then. Laura Ingalls Wilder, for instance, published her first novel, Little House in the Big Woods, in 1932, the year she turned fifty-five. Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout published her first novel Amy and Isabelle, in 1998, when she was forty-two. But I don’t know of any other era in American literature when women in middle age or older published as many debut novels as they did in the 1970s and 1980s. I can’t really explain this trend, and I’ve never seen anyone else even comment on it before. My best guess is that the phenomenon arose as a result of several converging trends. The rise of Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and the Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 1970s probably helped make some publishers a bit more conscientious when it came to considering novels by and about women. And the publishing industry, though it was certainly never a bastion of gender equality, opened its doors to female executives a bit earlier than did many other professions, such as law, or medicine, or architecture, or engineering (the list is too long and depressing to complete). As documented in Rona Jaffe’s semiautobiographical 1958 debut novel, The Best of Everything, the New York publishing industry snapped up a lot of bright young women when they were fresh out of prestigious colleges such as Swarthmore, Vassar, and Radcliffe (Jaffe’s own alma mater), putting them to work as readers of slush-pile manuscripts, copyeditors, and executive secretaries. Of course, as Jaffe’s novel also illustrated, these women were overworked, underpaid, and often harassed, sexually and otherwise, by their male colleagues and supervisors. Nonetheless, by 1970 there were plenty of women ensconced in the world of commercial publishing. And whereas the male editors and publishers who dominated the industry during the earlier decades of the century might have been disinclined to even consider a novel from a fifty-year-old housewife with no previous books in print, female editors and publishers didn’t seem to share that prejudice.

Many of the abovementioned authors, such as Belva Plain, learned their craft while writing short stories for women’s magazines, which were generally edited by other women. Many of these authors found their work first championed by their female agents. That’s what happened with Mary Higgins Clark, whose career didn’t flourish until she was taken on by literary agent Patricia Schartle Myrer (wife of best-selling novelist Anton Myrer), who represented her for the first twenty years of her career. And some of these women were housewives who, after their children were old enough to go off to school all day, found themselves with a bit of time on their hands and an eagerness to fill it with something more than doing the laundry and fixing dinner. That was the case with best-selling author Jacqueline Briskin. In 1964, the Bel Air housewife enrolled in a night class at UCLA called “The Craft of Fiction.” She thought the class would simply explore the works of famous writers. It turned out to be a class about writing fiction, not reading it. She had three children and a husband to look after, but the course ended up inspiring her to take up the writing trade. “I don’t know how it happened,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1982, “but suddenly I found myself absolutely fascinated with writing. Maybe I was at the time of life when I needed to do something else.” She was thirty-six at the time. Six years later, in 1970, she published California Generation, the first of her twelve novels. According to the Los Angeles Times her novels sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and frequently found their way onto bestsellers lists.

We may never see another twenty-year period when so many older female writers are publishing debut novels, but that is actually a good thing. Writers like Krantz and Clark and Plain would probably have begun their careers as novelists much earlier had the publishing industry and the academic writing workshops been as welcoming to women writers as they are now (which isn’t to say that the publishing industry doesn’t still have a long way to go before women attain complete parity with male writers). Highly educated women like Judith Krantz (Wellesley, Class of ’48) and Belva Plain (Barnard College, Class of ’39) grew up in an era when even the graduates of prestigious universities and colleges had limited professional options. Most of them were still expected to focus their time and attention on raising children and running a household. Plain, Krantz, Clark, and their ilk didn’t really flourish professionally until their children were fully grown and out of the house. Obviously, child-rearing wasn’t a big obstacle for the likes of Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, and other male writers, who let their wives handle most of those chores. Sadly, there were probably plenty of older women producing pop fictions as entertaining as Belva Plain’s or Mary Higgins Clark’s in earlier decades, but many of them probably never managed to make it into print. The 1970s and 1980s were a watershed era for women authors of a certain age making their debuts as novelists.

Of all the late-starting female novelists mentioned in this essay, only Judith Krantz managed to rack up more impressive sales figures than Mary Higgins Clark. According to Wikipedia’s list of the all-time best-selling fiction authors, it appears that the two women sold roughly the same number of books (around 100 million), but Krantz did it while producing only twelve titles, whereas Clark did it while producing an impressive fifty-six novels (to date, that is; there may be a few books still to be released posthumously). (It also should be noted that novels by V.C. Andrews have also sold roughly 100 million copies, but many of them were ghostwritten by Andrew Neiderman after Andrews’s death). In many ways the books these two women wrote were polar opposites. Clark was proud of the fact that she never included sex scenes in her work. Krantz’s novels were the first to be dubbed “bonkbusters” because of all the sex, rape, and incest they included (“bonking” was 70s slang for what nowadays is sometimes called “hooking up.”). Krantz’s novels haven’t aged particularly well, and they belong to a literary tradition of softcore sleaze whose other practitioners include the likes of Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susann, and E.L. James. Clark didn’t write classic detective novels in the mode of Agatha Christie, but in many ways she is America’s answer to Christie. Her books are free of graphic sex and obscene language. Both writers were incredibly prolific (Christie produced sixty-six novels). Both lived long lives; Christie died at eighty-five, Clark at ninety-two. Few people still read the works of Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann. When works are popular only because they are salacious, they are bound to be eclipsed when even more salacious books come along. To the best of my knowledge no one has made a film from a Robbins or Susann novel in decades, and probably never will again, but new Christie adaptations for the big screen and the small screen come out all the time, and will probably never end. Clark didn’t produce any characters that have entered the popular imagination in the way that Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple have. I’ve read probably a dozen Clark thrillers and can’t recall the names of any of her characters (I haven’t read the series of books that focus on recurring characters Alvirah and Willy Meehan). But her puzzles were good and her cliffhanger chapter endings are unmatched by anything in Christie’s oeuvre. I have a feeling that her work will live as long or longer than almost any of her peers among that group of fascinating women who published their debut novels after the age of forty sometime in the 1970s or 1980s. May she rest in peace.

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