To be XX or XY? That is the Question
Contributor
Written by
Rebecca Johns
February 2011
Contributor
Written by
Rebecca Johns
February 2011

A lot of my writer friends, male and female, have been as distressed as I have about the recent statistics published by VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts.  And yet I can't say I (or really any of the other women I know who write) were terribly surprised.  Women write a lot of books, and women buy a lot of books, as Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult and others have noted.  But women writers (and by extension women readers) are viewed rather cynically by the "serious" male literary establishment.  One need look no further than Jonathan Franzen's comments about Oprah's Book Club, made in 2001, to see a "literary" author worry that women readers might be his primary audience:

 

"So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator or whatever. I worry — I'm sorry that it's, uh — I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I've heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say 'If I hadn't heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it.' Those are male readers speaking. I see this as my book, my creation." (NPR's Fresh Air)

 

And who could blame him ?  I too worry my books will be ghettoized this way, that only women will read them--that half my potential audience will look at my first name and pass the book by. 

 

The problem begins, many believe, in the gender roles assigned to us in childhood.  When I worked in children's publishing, the rule was that girls would read books about both boys and girls, but boys would, as a group, only read about boys.  When they grow up, women will read books by both men and women, while men, in general, tend to read largely male authors.  Far too many of my male writer friends list not a single book by a woman among the works that most influence them.  Yet I can't think of a single woman who does not list a male author, or several male authors, among her influences.

 

There's no accounting for taste, of course.  As Michael Schaub and Jessa Crispin argued with each other over at Bookslut, taste is a complex cultural and psychological stew.  Do male writers not take women seriously because they're women, or because of what they write about?  Would the same book written under a male name be more palatable to male readers?

 

I wonder.

 

The "lady-writer" issue has dogged writers as remarkable at the Bronte sisters and George Eliot, all of whom published under men's names.  And don't even get me started on Jane Austen, who wrote remarkably clever and densely plotted social comedies (a fact that can be easy to forget under the onslaught of bad fan fiction that's appeared recently).  If she'd had a Y chromosome, would she have been lauded as the second coming of Shakespeare?  Even today her stories are dismissed, even by women, as mere "romances."  They all end in weddings, the critics moan.  Would the critics make the same complaint about "Twelfth Night," or "A Midsummer Night's Dream"?  Or would Shakespeare be entirely forgettable if he hadn't written tragedy as well as comedy?

 

Lest you think this is a nineteenth-century problem, consider: last fall I had lunch with a writer friend, a woman who has won an impressive array of awards for her work and had seen her work appear at least once that I can think of on the New York Times bestseller list.  She has a new book coming out this year, but she knew the Times wouldn't cover it.  Not one of her books has appeared in the Times, in fact.  If she can't get reviewed there, the ivory tower of American literary criticism, who on earth can?

 

Which leads me to wonder.  I have a book project in my vault, a project that feels to me startingly original and interesting, but I worry: would it be dismissed if I wrote it under my own name?  Should I choose a pseudonym--a male pseudonym--to get it taken seriously, or write it under my initials, like AM Holmes or JK Rowling?

 

So here's my question, ladies: Have you ever been tempted to write under a man's name?  To see what would be different if you weren't saddled with the specifically feminine?  Have you actually done it, and what happened?

 

Answer here, or join the discussion over at Illiterati, where I first posted this question.

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