We now scoff at the idea that the Bronte sisters had to use pseudonyms of male names in order to get published in England in the early eighteen hundreds. Female writers were not taken seriously. Their good work alone wasn’t sufficient to land a deal. But when Charlotte, Emily, and Anne began to send their work off as Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, it suddenly had appeal.
It would be nice to think that this was something that only happened in England and not after the mid-nineteenth century. But many female mystery writers would disagree. Taking on just their initials – or those they made up – made their names sound gender neutral and therefore more attractive to male readers.
P. D. James, P. J. Parrish, L. C. Hayden, J. A. Nance, and even J. D. Robb – known as Nora Roberts to her romance novel fans – all used names that wouldn’t sound too feminine for the mystery/suspense/detective novels they were selling.
But men have gotten the same backlash when attempting to sell romance novels. Although some are coming clean from the start, many have used or continue to use female names. Harold Lowry cranks out romance novels as Leigh Greenwood. Tom Huff was the man behind Jennifer Wilde and Edwinna Malowe, Fran Vincent is actually Vince Brach, and Bill Spence – a World War II veteran – is Jessica Blair.
With women being the majority of the readers of the romance genre, men have felt the sting of having to use pseudonyms in order to satisfy the market.
Science fiction has belonged to men, and women writing in this genre often choose a gender neutral or male suggestive nom de plume. Author James Tiptree, Jr. was the pen name of Alice Sheldon. Others in the Sci-fi genre include Carolyn Cherry writing as C. J. Cherryh, Catherine Moore as C. L. Moore, and June Mills as Tarpe Mills.
Even non-fiction has felt the stereotype of gender. True crime’s Andy Stack was the pseudonym of Ann Rule for years in spite of her education and background in police procedures. She’s over that now – thankfully – and writes under her own name.
And what about the Queen of young adult fiction – the series about a boy wizard? You might have heard about him. His name is Harry Potter and the author, Joanne Rowling, was strongly recommended to use initials as the fact that she was not male was seen a possible detriment to marketing the book.
She became J. K. Rowling. That was in 1997, a mere sixteen years ago.
Does it matter to you if the author of a particular genre is male or female?
Do you think the market has ceased to attribute a genre to a gender?
Were you surprised to learn that an author you adored was actually someone quite different that you expected, especially if that difference involved gender?
Have you considered using a pseudonym, and if so, what would it be?
Renee Johnson is the author of Acquisition, and The Haunting of William Gray. She is currently working on a Young Adult novel, while editing a suspense novel which has international flair–an homage to her love of travel and foreign food. She lives on a farm in North Carolina with her husband, Tony Johnson, and one very spoiled German shepherd named Gretel.
It doesn’t matter to me, but I do think it does to some readers. Also there’s the actual sound of the name: humans like certain sounds. So does marketing.
Do people attach certain attributes/characteristics to author names based on their own experiences?
Should a name be chosen to sound like a person who could write about a certain topic/story? Not only gender but ethnicity?
Guess that’s how marketing gets involved?
Ethnicity – that’s a good point. We are such a fickle audience.
sad that you have to consider every tiny little thing that shouldn’t even matter
And it makes me wonder if our names make a difference when our manuscripts hit an agent/editor/publisher’s desk.
I think it’s sad that many readers tend to judge a book by the gender of the author. Even those of us who disagree with such practices may do it without realizing it. For urban fantasy with strong female leads I tend to gravitate toward female writers. For whatever reason, I worry a male author won’t write convincingly from a woman’s perspective. Luckily I’m not that close-minded and have found some great male authors who can write awesome female protagonists. Whatever our initial instincts, so long as we give a book a chance then we might just find the gender of the author doesn’t always matter.
I may have a bias in the romance department but I’m going to get over it! And, as you say, I didn’t even realize it until I started working on this piece and gave thought to the descriptions of romantic scenes for women portrayed by men. But I love Nicholas Sparks, and I never give much thought to the fact that it is a man describing the scenes. Thanks for weighing in.
Given my favorite author is Ursula K LeGuinn, I don’t think the gender of the author matters. Being able to connect with the main character is what gets me to buy the book.
Well said! Although there may be an initial impression, if the writing is mesmerizing, the readers will return.
The truth is actually sad as a wanna-be author. I can never remember the name of author of the book I’m reading…
It’s getting difficult for me to remember where the car keys are – much less who the author of the book I am reading is. But when it is really good, I find that I do recall it and want to read everything they have published.
i do too — but I always have to look it up!
Renee, I’m with Gene–it’s all about connecting with the main character. If I don’t bond with the protagonist, I find that I can’t immerse myself in the piece. I have to be able to connect, to either be a partner in crime or embody the main character. This allows me to travel to an alternate universe where his or her life is now mine. Oh, the excitement of traveling to faraway lands! Anyone who can inspire me to do so, man or woman, is a winner in my book! 🙂
Bella, I love stories that take me away as well, even if it is just into the world of another person. Character development is so essential and hard to get exactly right. I truly admire the people who make it look effortless.
I like these questions!
I take it you are pondering them. I thought I would have just one question for the readers, but after writing the piece and thinking about it for a little while, I kept thinking of more.
Yes, there’s a bias, Renee, but no, I wouldn’t use a pseudonym. It’s fascinating to read your post, though, and find out just how many changed their sexual identity for the sake of their readers. I always feel disappointed when I found out that an author I likes as a woman turns out to be a man or vice versa. Just please don’t tell me that Sylvia Plath was a man or Charles Dickens a woman!
Monica, you are safe – no spoilers on Plath or Dickens. Is it the language of novels that inspires us to think of the author in a specific way? Hmm, you’ve got me wondering again.
This is fascinating. I never knew that about the Bronte sisters nor about some of the more modern ones you mentioned. I personally don’t have a preference for the gender of a writer. It’s a bit like music with me on if it’s good or not, ‘it’s not the singer it’s the song’ Books are the same way.
I will tell you this, though, that I believe a person’s name can have an impact on if their manuscript reaches an editor’s desk. This was one of the things I learned way-back-when I took a couple of writing courses. There was a study done using the same story with different author names and sure enough the positive feedback from editors came back for the better chosen names. Have you ever heard of a study like that?
Thanks for sharing this interesting history and thoughts on the name-game.
Oh my, that is so interesting. Thank you for sharing that study. I hadn’t heard about but I do believe it. As Karen mentioned, marketing makes a difference and if the name is catchy enough to snag the editor’s attention, it might give the impression it will grab readers as well. Now I am wondering if my name has the right ‘spark’.
I didn’t know about the gender bias towards male romance writers. thanks for sharing that tidbit. I find it ridiculous that people care if a male or female wrote a novel in any genre. All that matters is the story. Is the story good or bad?
That is all that should matter. But finding out that JK Rowling was asked to use initials made a lot of difference to me. Have we come all that far?
I’m with Elyse on this one. I seldom remember the author’s name. Two of my favourite author’s are absolutely brilliant but their names are difficult or uncommon to me so they don’t stick in my head and I alway have to look them up (The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo series and 1Q84).
A third favourite, although I now remember his name, Andrew Grealy, writes a very entertaining series about a young Irish woman and her life. There are some pretty steamy “romance” scenes in every book. Imagine my surprise when the author turned out to be an old Catholic Priest!
That is funny – a Priest writing steamy romance scenes. I can definitely understand why he would use a pen name. Perhaps that is how he channeled his sexuality.
The Priest uses his own name. Father Andrew Grealy. It is funny but his writing is terrific.
I’m going to have to read his work now – totally intrigued!
I will echo Gene and Bella. If an author draws me in with good characters, I forget about the author altogether and just flow with the story. But these market-driven pseudonyms are quite interesting. Thanks Renee.
Thanks for weighing in Bella. First impressions matter of course, but I agree. In the end, it’s all about the writing!!
My name’s Christine and I sometimes use Chris so readers don’t know if I’m male of female but I don’t know if it makes any difference. I like having that option though, without the use of a pseudonym.
That is a fabulous option. You are using your own name, while remaining gender neutral. Bravo!
Oops. Make that ‘or’ female!
This is a wonderful opinion piece, Renee. Personally, I don’t plan to use a pen name but I understand the marketing concept still pushed by a tiny percentage of publishers. I read ‘Margaret From Maine’ by Joseph Monninger a short time ago and he writes Margaret’s POV. He nails the emotion, physical characteristics and moods perfectly.
Thank you Sheri. As more people self-publish, they will face this connundrum for themselves. Using your own name is priceless, I think. And we normally find out – especially now – who the real person is behind the pen name.
I personally doubt if such a bias exists today. Much of what we see and tend to label as biases actually stem from deepseated beliefs and blocks within the so called biased category and its members. This shows up in their own hesitant and stunted behaviour and responses at times. Which could then lead to reinforcement of the bias belief.
I hope you are right Shakti. Thanks for commenting.
For some readers, I think there might still be a biased for certain genre but I think a great story is a great story that will cross all barriers once people start talking how amazing it is. Even those with second thoughts will find themselves being irresistibly drawn.
Well said. Let’s hear it for great stories regardless of the gender of the author.
Wow, this is enormously interesting, Renee. Though, it infuriates me! How terrible, terrible the Bronte sisters weren’t read… and then the turnaround. I can just imagine the conversation they had, before coming up with that tactic. Too funny… no, sad… but funny!
Great post 🙂
It’s all about perception I suppose. As writers I guess we cave to the marketing specialists because we just want to get our books into the most hands. Infuriating and funny simultaneously. Thanks Noeleen.
We get bullied by agents and publishers into changing our names and our identities and I think that’s why so many people are self-publishing these days.
an interesting question: Would J.K. Rowling have sold +400 million books and become richer than the Queen of England if we’d known her as – — tah-dah—- Joanne Rowling?
I’ll ask you, would I sell millions of my books if I call myself Rosie or Rosanne or RF?
I love that you are questioning this for yourself, and now I am questioning my name. I guess it would depend on your genre, which supports the publishers. Sad, but true.
That’s interesting to hear about men writing romance. Often, the assumption is that gender bias is all one way, but romance is the biggest selling genre world-wide, so that is a huge mainly female-readership market. Thanks, Renee.
It surprised me too. I’m glad you enjoyed this piece. It definitely hits the romance genre and I have loved the comments from readers on this post. Thanks for weighing in.
Personally I don’t care which gender any writer is. Many of my favourite ones are females – as well as males. But I am not surprised by the fact that there still exists a gender bias among writers. Unfortunately I have to add. It sad that we haven’t come any further.