I had an interesting revelation not too long ago. On my author blog, I featured an urban fantasy title by a debut author who respectfully requested, on behalf of her publisher, that her gender not be revealed. In other words, by remaining “gender-neutral” and using only two initials and a last name, she is in essence posing as a guy in order to appeal to a broader readership. I went along with her wishes, of course, but it really made me think.
On one hand, I understand the rationale. Survey after survey, blog discussion after blog discussion, male readers say they are unlikely to read books written by women—or at least are more hesitant to do so. The reasoning? Books written by women are more likely to have that objectionable emotional stuff in them, they say. They can’t identify with the heroines, and the heroes are unbelievable. God forbid there might be–gasp, horror–ROMANCE in them.
On the other hand, I’m kind of outraged, and the more I think about it, the more bothered I am. What does it say about our society, and our industry, if the only way a woman can publish a non-romance title and be accepted by a broad audience of both genders, at least in certain genres, is to pretend to be male or hide behind a “gender-neutral” pen name? By following this marketing rationale, is the publisher being smart, realistic, or perpetuating a cultural stereotype we should be well past?
George Eliot, anyone? George, aka Mary Anne Evans, was one of the most respected of Victorian novelists, who assumed a male pen name so her work would be taken seriously and not lumped in with the romance-driven (and thus not serious) work being written by women. Had she written Middlemarch or Silas Marner under the name Mary Anne Evans, would those books still be considered among the best novels of their time or would they have been dismissed and fallen into obscurity?
Seriously, have we not moved beyond the Victorian age?
(To be fair, this works both ways. The fabulous fantasy author Daniel Abraham writes urban fantasy under the gender-neutral MLN Hanover name, although he’s been open about it. But if you’re scanning book jackets and look at the covers of his Black Sun’s Daughter series, you’d assume the books were written by a woman because of the kickass heroine on the cover, a la urban fantasy.)
It’s a real issue. I’ve had guys—quite a few of them—admit somewhat sheepishly that they liked the book in both my urban fantasy series (under the Suzanne Johnson name) and paranormal romance series (as Susannah Sandlin), much to their surprise. If the series were being written by S.M. Johnson, would it have gotten a bigger male readership? Probably not, because the cover screams GIRL. Gender-neutral’s cover was very, um, gender-neutral, so this was a carefully designed marketing plan on her publisher’s part.
Would guys be more likely to read my very action-heavy paranormal romance series if it were written by S.M. Sandlin? Would my readership double by tricking guys into reading a book written by a woman?
Conversely, am I more likely to read a book written by another women than by a male author? I honestly don’t care. Looking at my shelves of favorite series, it’s about a 60-40 female-to-male ratio. But–and here’s something I also hate to admit–the guys really don’t do relationship stuff well and I like books that have relationship stuff in them. So maybe we just accept the gender difference in book readership and authorship and flow with it–and not hide our identities. I would like to know how that author’s demographic has worked out in terms of sales.
What are your thoughts on this? Am I being naïve to wish we’d gone beyond the marginalization of female authors? Would you (or do you) write as a “gender-neutral” author, and has it broadened your market? Are there guys writing romance under women’s pen names for the very same reason?