A Question of Identity: Female Writers Posing as Men
Throughout history, women have had to disguise themselves as men in order to become pirates, soldiers, athletes, politicians...and perhaps not surprisingly, even writers. Now that we have the vote and the right to work (at least in my part of the world), one would think this kind of ruse is no longer necessary.
However, one would be wrong.
Sadly—or perhaps I should say shamefully, even today female writers are often encouraged to take on a male pseudonym in order to disguise their identity so that their writing will be taken more seriously. Nora Roberts became J.D. Robb at the recommendation of her publisher when she moved from writing romance to suspense novels. Crime writer Ann Rule, who actually published several books under her own name, is better known as Andy Stack, the pseudonym she adopted later on. Joanne Rowling published the Harry Potter series under the name J.K. Rowling at the behest of her publisher (so as not to alienate the target audience of boys), and then took the name Robert Galbraith when she turned to writing detective novels. And those are just the really famous ones. The list, I’m afraid, goes on.
Why are female writers encouraged to do this, you might ask? In December 2012, Penguin editor Anne Sowards told the Wall Street Journal, "It sometimes makes sense for a female author to use a pseudonym, particularly when the main characters are male, or when it's a genre with a strong appeal to men, like military science fiction, certain types of fantasy or gritty thriller. 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." According to the blog Jezebel, “...the problem is that studies show men are more likely to read books that are written by other men; one study found that four out of five men said the last book they read was written by a dude.” (Women, on the other hand, don’t seem to discriminate against books based on the sex of the writer.)
So there you have it. Publishers, agents, authors, and even readers themselves believe that a woman must hide behind a man’s identity in order to be taken seriously or sell books to men. And that’s how it will remain as long as we allow that narrative to be pushed on us.
Which brings us to the question of the hour: what the heck do we do about it?
I’ve struggled long and hard with this issue myself. When I published my dark urban fantasy series (think serial killers and angelic apocalypse), my editor and agent both suggested that I use a male (or androgynous) pen name. At the time, I decided against their advice, and I have no doubt my decision resulted in fewer sales for me. A lot fewer.
Does this make me happy? No. Does it make me wish I’d decided differently? I’ll be honest: some days it does, because I know damned well I can write kick-ass stuff (one male reviewer called a murder scene in Sins of the Angels one of the creepiest he’d ever seen), and it ticks me off more than just a little to know my books have been dismissed by a wider audience simply because I’m a girl.
Most days, however, I’m fiercely proud of my decision. Because you know what? It’s not okay that I sell fewer books as a girl than I would as a guy. It’s not okay that my books are judged not by their covers (which are awesome, by the way) but by the very name on their covers. It’s not okay that assumptions are made about my writing based on my gender. And it’s sure as hell not okay that I contribute to the perpetuation of these ideas.
As sci-fi/fantasy author Marie Bilodeau wrote in an article for SF Signal, “For female writers to continue hiding behind initials to prove sales are better for men or to pretend they lay claim to a bigger market in assuming a male pseudonym is doing more than just becoming a trickster character. It’s holding back the narrative for all of us.”
I say it’s time to stop hiding and write our own narrative. What do you think?
Linda Poitevin is the proud female author of some damned fine kick-ass fiction and mother to three kick-ass daughters. She lives near Ottawa, Canada’s capital, and is published in both dark urban fantasy and contemporary romance. You can find out more on her website, and by following her on Facebook and Twitter.