Would You Change Your Name for a Book?

Jen Doll
Would You Change Your Name for a Book?

In a piece in Friday's Wall Street JournalStefanie Cohen takes on the business of author pseudonyms. In particular, "Why Women Writers Still Take Men's Names." This is not just an article about changing one's name to appear more literary or authoritative or, simply, to sell more books, though it is about those things. It's also about gender and inherent sexism in how we buy, read, and sell what we read. How widespread is this? 

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Cohen has examples. For instance, the author "Magnus Flyte, a supposed international man of mystery" who wrote City of Dark Magic. He's really a she, and two of them: Christina Lynch and Meg Howrey, who have said they chose a male pseudonym "partly because they read studies saying that while women would buy books by either sex, men preferred books by men," writes Cohen. After all, "'Why would we want to exclude anyone?' says Ms. Lynch." 

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The Brontës published as the Bell brothers for rather the same reasons, albeit in the 19th century. But this is still happening, though perhaps more commonly in the form of initializations rather than full-cloth made-up male names: J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts, writing sci-fi police thrillers), E.L. James (Erika Leonard, Fifty Shades of Gray), or J.K. Rowling (J.K. is "Joanne" and "K" for her grandmother, Kathleen; she's said her publisher Bloomsbury advised her to use the initials), for example. Those initials appear neutral; they could be male or female writers. But book industry folks seem open about acknowledging that this is really about female writers appearing to be male  so as not to alienate male readers "who tend to favor male authors." Once hooked on the Harry Potter saga, a reader doesn't care, presumably, that the person who writes what he loves is a woman. But they have to be reeled in first. And the default presumption is that an author with such a name is a man.

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As Cohen writes,

"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 thrillers," says Penguin editor Anne Sowards, whose fantasy authors K.A. Stewart, Rob Thurman and K.J. Taylor are women.

There is research behind this theory. A Queen Mary College survey in 2005 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," Cohen writes. At the same time, women comprise the majority of readers in almost every fiction genre; you'd think that instead of being afraid to put off possible male readers with female author names, publishers might instead simply embrace the great reading (and book-buying) public of women. Historically, of course, there have been more male writers and male readers (see Joan Acocella's great New Yorker article on the history of women reading—it "was only with the rise of vernacular literature in the Renaissance, and, later, with the rise of Gutenberg’s printing press, that women began reading in large numbers.") 

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There is still further to go as, in 2012, enough female writers are changing their names to appear as men to merit Cohen's piece. Similarly, in Y.A., there's that old presumption that boys would read about boys, but not about girls, while girls would read about both boys and girls. That theory did have an impact on what was created in the category, and still does to some extent, yet plenty of boys read The Hunger Games, written by a woman clearly identified with a female name: Suzanne Collins. Would more boys have read the books if she'd called herself S.C. Collins? It's impossible to say, but those books have sold more than 50 million copies, and Suzanne is right there on the front cover. When the boys and girls loving that series grow up to read adult books, hopefully they'll remember that it's about what's within the cover flaps and not the gender of the author name that matters. 

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It's worrisome that these gender presumptions seem so engrained in our publishing psyches, but it's understandable, too. It's hard to get published, and something many people desire deeply. Then, once a book is written, with so much time and love and energy put into it, what writer wants to have someone turn away from it before reading a word beyond her name on the cover? Cohen writes, 

"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."

Once a writer gains an audience and a following (who, presumably, will eventually figure out the person they perceived as a male writer is really a she, whether it's because of book signings or photographs on back flaps), they can be who they are, and, hopefully, their audience will stay with them. Meanwhile, Cohen points out, some men have written under female names in hopes of appealing to women (usually "bodice-rippers"), and then there are the women writers who refuse to write under an apparently male name, like Seanan McGuire (a woman), who wrote under the more clearly female pseudonym Mira Grant, despite recommendations from her publisher. 

It does seem, though, that this strange gender unequal business could be eventually resolved if we all simply insisted on being who we are and reading what we love, but in a world of people who create fiction for money, that's probably easier said than done.