Sunday, December 9, 2012

Male pseudoynms for women writers: take two

The issue of women authors taking male names (or initials) to camouflage their gender is a very,, very, very old one. It's an issue that continues to come up, though. An article this last week in the Wall Street Journal-- Why Women Writers Still Take Men's Names-- revisits the issue, but from a slightly different angle. (This is the Wall Street Journal.) The underlying reason offered in the article remains broadly the same (viz., the problem of gender bias), but the article's author, Stefanie Cohen, places the emphasis on book editors' conventional wisdom informing what is basically a business decision and therefore implies that the reasons for an author's concealing her gender have changed. Cohen observes:
Women make up the majority of readers for most fiction genres, with the exception of science fiction. Nevertheless, the industry is wary of alienating men, who tend to favor male authors, according to several studies. In 2005, two professors from Queen Mary College surveyed 100 academics, critics, and writers and found that four out of five men said the last novel they had read was written by a man. Women were almost as likely to have read a book by a man as a woman, the study found.
"For a new author, we want to avoid anything that might cause a reader to put a book down and decide, 'not for me,' " Ms. Sowards says. "When we think a book will appeal to male readers, we want everything about the book to say that—the cover, the copy and, yes, the author's name."
Science fiction has a strong tradition of female writers not only using male names, but pretending to be men. Throughout the 1970s, James Tiptree Jr. won fans and book awards. Not until 1976 was it revealed that the author's real name was Alice Sheldon.
Fantasy has been somewhat friendlier for women, but generally not if they are writing about male characters. J.K. Rowling has famously said that her publisher, Bloomsbury, told her that she should sell the Harry Potter books under initials, not her given name, Joanne. Even after being revealed as a woman and becoming one of the best-selling authors of all time, those rules often still apply.
"Would a 12-year-old boy have picked up a book by Joanne Rowling?" asks John Scalzi, a sci-fi writer and president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. "Once you have your audience, you're fine—J.K. Rowling still sold when people found out she was a woman—but it's getting the audience that's important."
Probably my favorite quote from the article comes from the two women who write under the joint pseudonym of "Magnus Flyte."
Ms. Lynch and Ms. Howrey decided to use a male pseudonym for their first thriller partly because they read studies saying that while women would buy books by either sex, men preferred books by men, says Ms. Lynch. They didn't want to risk losing a single reader. "Why would we want to exclude anyone?" says Ms. Lynch.
Why indeed? Since gender bias is with us, short-term thinking (which is all that corporations or even most individuals ever engage in) necessarily means adapting oneself to gender bias. It's what we do, right? Sure, it has ideological resonances, but it's basically a business decision. The article shows photos of Charlotte Bronte, George Sand, Isak Dinesen, and references James Tiptree Jr. They all did it, too. But not, perhaps, for precisely the same reason. Same decision, different reason...It's all just so very complicated.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sometimes it feels I need a male pseudonym to even get an agent/get read.