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?
J K ROWLIN – Had been advised by her publicist NOT TO USE her full name for the reason you’re feel somewhat OUTRAGED about your author’s request that only her initials be used. The reason is to attract a wider audience, namely BOYS,
What does the J in her name stand for? – – – It’s JOANNE
What does the K in her name stand for? – – – She doesn’t have a middle name !!!
The K is what she adopted as part of her pen name. The K belongs to her
I think it’s a shame. I don’t pick books based on who wrote them, (unless of course I’ve read that author before and I like their work, then I’ll look for them again.) One of my favourite fantasy authors is male and I’ve got every single one of his books. But I’ve also got plenty of female written fantasy and paranormal all using names that tell you they are either female or male. I do find it interesting that Nora Roberts chose to write under the more masculine sounding J.D Robb for her futuristic murder mystery-romance series. And Joanne Rowling published under JK Rowling. I think there is a gender bias and it is unfortunate. It would be nice to live in a world where everyone was treated the same.
Interesting question, since I write under L.G., not because I’m trying to obscure my gender, but because I’m trying to hide my very distinctive hyphenated last name that is usually paired with O’Connor. That said, I write urban fantasy with a heavy dose of PNR. I’ll admit it: I write specifically for women. I happen to love a heavy dose of romance with my UF. As a result, the few men who have left reviews on my book where less than complimentary, specifically calling out the romance. Maybe because they thought I was a guy writing UF? Not sure. Personally, I don’t find most male writers quite capture romance the way I enjoy it, but I’m all for a great story written by anyone.
Great post! I personally don’t care about the gender of the author. I pick a book based on the story and the characters. If they appeal to me then, I will read it. I have to agree that women authors tend to include the messy relationship stuff more than men. Unfortunately, gender bias is still present in pretty much all professional fields.
In a quick check of my Urban Fantasy / Paranormal Romance author list, I read 144 authors, 6 are male. I think I prefer female authors. When one uses just initials I find it a fun challenge to find out the gender.
I read tons, and it doesn’t really matter whose name is on the cover, what matters to me is the story. If it keeps me hooked, I’m a fan. Voice, characters, world building are what keep me coming back for more. Granted, I admit some covers will deter my interest–sometimes. I’m actually more intrigued about a romance written by a male, in that it would be interesting to see how he handles stuff. Yet I know my hubby will shy away from some great UF stories because the covers are geared towards the female audience. He tends to stick to male authors. With this very, unscientific pool of one, I’d say it would come down more to the covers versus the actual author name.
The use of initials or gender-neutral names goes way back in science fiction. Ursula LeGuin published her early work as U.K. LeGuin, C.L. (Catherine) Moore always used her intitals (back in the “Golden Age” when SF was almost entirely masculine). And there was James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon). I knew the first time I read a Tiptree story that “James” was not a man, but Robert Silverberg once wrote an essay about the masculinity of Tiptree’s writing. I’d like to think these pressures are changing.
And let’s not forget the men who write romance–almost always under feminine pen names.
Suzanne, thanks for this thought provoking post. I think my outrage about this goes even deeper than on the business/readership side.
I so deeply believe reading should be about learning, about having our worlds expanded–romance makes our hearts bigger, paranormal stretches our imagination, even as we are relaxing and entertained.
I read tons of books by men, mostly Lit Fic and noir type mysteries, and I suspect it does give me insight into how those men see the world. I get it that many men don’t want to read romance (including my husband, though he does like sex scenes!), but to hold a bias against all women authors is terribly narrow, and I suspect it’s prevalent among the men who most need to see the world from inside a woman’s POV.
I think it does go the other way too – I know there must be male romance authors, I’ve seen them at the RWA national convention, but I’ll be darned if I can name a single male romance author who doesn’t primarily define his work as another genre. (Plenty of amazing scifi/fantasy/adventure/etc. works have just as much romance in them as many romance novels, but they’re not marketed that way.)
I hate to admit it, but this is a big part of why I’m sticking with writing romance. I love fantasy and steampunk, and my books straddle between romance and “something else,” but if I publish them as romance I can be me. If I publish them as science fiction, I have to be a gender-neutral author brand who never tweets about feminism or being a mom or how much I love so-and-so’s new straight-up romance novel.
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