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Wednesday Extra: That’s Not My Name

December 21, 2011

Or, why do women writing science fiction still use male pen-names?

Being one of those women, I thought I’d research this to add to my production portfolio for uni; but to my surprise there was hardly anything on the subject that was much use, so I thought I’d give it a whirl myself (if you do find a decent article/blog entry, whack it in the comments or send it in an email, because I’d love to read it).

So, historically women needed a pen name to pubish pretty much anything at all. The three Bronte sisters sent their work off under pseudonyms, Mary Shelley published Frankenstein anonymously. George Eliot is probably the most famous example from the Victorian era (real name: Mary Ann Evans), and those of you who played Eternal Sonata like me will remember the novelist George Sand (real name: Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin).

That probably doesn’t surprise you – women having an education or a source of income was pretty much laughable back then because of male-dominated society, and yeah yeah you did this all at school. It’s only until we get to Jane Austen that women are really publishing as women at all.

But what about sci-fi? Why did it stick?

After the grand-daddies of the genre H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, men seemed to dominate the genre well into the Fifties and Sixties – and no one really knows why, but it’s probably a combination of the education divide, and the largely male audience (though it’s worth noting that Mary Shelley is often considered to be alongside Wells and Verne as having practically created the genre, so it’s not all doom and gloom for us ladies).

And the thing with genre expectations is that, despite social changes, they sort of stay the same. I know plenty of women write science fiction, but I still expect to see more men’s names on the shelf in the bookstore. I asked my grandfather (who is way up on his modern sci fi, despite his age) about this, and he bashfully admitted he would never pick up a sci fi novel with a women’s name on it. He knows women can write science fiction just as well, just as he knows he will never read it.

So here is where we get the ambiguous, unisex names like Robin Hobb, C. J. Cherryh and K. A. Applegate (and here’s where I think Mitch Allan should fit quite nicely).

Of course, it’s not like this is as necessary as it used to be. Anne MacCaffery and Ursula K. Le Guin are both highly-respected giants of the genre (and in my opinion really bloody good, so if either name isn’t ringing any bells for you, go check them out now please – I’ll wait); and they never had to do this silly masquerade. J. K. Rowling’s book sales didn’t suddenly plummet when we all realised she was a woman. Just this year, Erin Morgenstern has had great success with Night Circus, and there seems to be more of us ladies openly in sci fi and fantasy than ever before.

But there’s still that nagging suspicion that, unconsciously, some people are going to see ‘Michelle’ on that front cover and think ‘Ah – space opera romance. Think I’ll pass.’

I told a classmate about changing my name, whereupon she looked shocked and said she’d be more likely to pick up sci fi or fantasy with a woman’s name on the spine. A female author seemed to promise to her more character developments and, yes, romance, and less blood and guts and rayguns. Just as male writers use female names when writing romance (and believe me, there are a lot more of them that you think – and more power to them, I say), you’re buying into an expectation. It’s based on nonsense ideas of what sex and gender really is, of course, but it’s an expectation nonetheless.

Do I advise all you ladies to change your names? No, of course not. We shouldn’t have to. And I’m not doing it because I have to, but because I want to (and that’s an important distinction you need to make for yourself). I want more Victorias and Hayleys and Samanthas and everything else littering the shelves (and we could do with more Marks and Adams floating around the romance section too).

But this book for this author, is not a ‘Michelle’ sort of book.

(Also, you know. Merry Christmas, and all that jazz. Now get off the Internet and do…festive things. I don’t know.)

This Week’s Links

Firstly, if any of those author names up there are unfamiliar to you – jump onto Google and check them out. And then find one book of theirs you think you might like, buy it or add it to a wishlist. I am serious. This is part of your education – to be a geek, we first must learn what has come before (and they’re all wicked good).

If you’ve not been reading Ben Galley’s guide to self-publishing then kindly do so now. He’s the author of fantasy epic The Written, and did a guest lecture at Solent Uni – and he is awesome. (His twitter feed is not too shabby either).

Let The Word Do The Work is an article from DailyWritingTips about redundant phrases that turn up everywhere and that writers should avoid. This whole site is a good browse.

Getting in the festive spirit, 25 Ways For Writers To Help Other Writers by Chuck Wendig at his site Terribleminds is a great read on networking and generally being, you know, nice in our sprawling, chaotic community of coffee-addicts who make stuff up for a living.

Mercia Dragonslayer’s guest post 7 Steps To Taming Your NaNoWriMo Manuscript at Write It Sideways is a must for those of you sprinting, staggering, or crawling over the NaNo finish line, and thinking about editing in the New Year (you crazy, crazy bastards).

My Christmas music for this week is Carol of the Bells.

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