A few days ago, Keren David wrote an excellent ABBA post querying why women writers sometimes choose to use their initials rather than full names. She felt that women need to stand up and be counted. It's a subject I've considered for a while without coming to a conclusion. My thoughts on reading her post were too long and complicated to fit in the comments section, so I’m returning to the topic here.
I'll start with a confession: I wanted to be published as E. L. Renner, but my then agent convinced me to use my first name. I'm still uncertain that was the right decision.
Why? Partly because initials are more anonymous. My books are about my characters, not me. I want my stories and characters to stand alone, with as little 'author-as-brand' hype as possible. As a child and teen reader I didn't want to know anything about the author of books I loved except when their next book was coming out. I wanted to experience the magic of transformation into another person, another world, another experience. Author photos were a definite turn-off: I wanted magic performed by some unknown alchemist, not a real person. Terry Prachett has the wisdom to wear a magician’s hat for his publicity stills.
Then there’s the delicate question of the critical glass ceiling. It's a perennial topic in adult fiction and it would be naive to believe that children’s books are exempt. It would also take a large dollop of willful obtuseness not to notice that male authors attract more critical attention per capita than their female counterparts. It's not a conspiracy; critics don't exercise their bias consciously any more than did the editors of the publications who recently voted for Sports Personality of the Year and neglected to put a single woman on the list.
I believe that almost all of us, however pro-female we believe ourselves to be, are so conditioned by the constant bombardment of overt and subtle messages in every aspect of our society about the relative value of the male versus the female that we subconsciously take a story written by a man more seriously than we would the same story written by a woman.
I don't think J.K. Rowling's books would have been as successful had she published them as Joanne. I doubt George Eliot would have garnered such a strong place in the canon if she had written as Mary Ann Evans. If Sylvia Townsend Warner, one of the greatest stylists and most original writers of the twentieth century, had been a man, I am convinced that her books would be much better known today. Arguably, Virginia Woolf made it into the public eye not because she had a room of her own, but because she had a publishing house of her own.
Is it, therefore, a cop-out for a woman to write under her initials, in an attempt, however feeble, to combat the anti-female bias that pervades every aspect of our culture? Possibly. It’s a difficult question and one I’ll continue to ask myself. But I also know I'll use whatever tools I can fashion to give my books and my characters, both male and female, every chance I can.
Because the larger point is that, although gender shouldn't matter in life, it does. And the only way I can see to address this issue as a writer is to attempt to be as genderless as possible – a writing androgyne. I enjoy writing both male and female characters. I don't set out to write about a girl or a boy; I choose the gender which seems to fit the story best. And the reason I write at all is because I want imaginative experience. While it's true that I can’t experience what it’s like to be a boy or man in real life, I can imagine it as a writer, and I have never felt closer to any character than I did when writing Tobias Petch in City of Thieves.
‘Only connect.’ E. M. Forster knew that books teach empathy. Between the pages of a book a reader can become another person. Boys can become girls, and girls boys. Men can see the world, however briefly, through the eyes and emotions of a woman. And understanding may result. And then, perhaps, the word ‘girly’ will no longer be a term of disdain. When that happens, this entire discussion will be irrelevant.
Earlier this year I attended a conference where a speaker advised writers to ensure their main characters were boys, trotting forth that insidious mantra of marketing, ‘boys won’t read about girl characters’.
Please don’t tell that to the countless boys who read Roald Dahl’s Matilda, The BFG and The Magic Finger. Or the boys, like my son, who devour Prachett’s Tiffany Aching books (which gently poke fun at gender stereotypes through the dealings between Tiffany and the Wee Free Men). Don't tell the generations of boys who have loved Charlotte's Web and The Borrowers or those who, like my husband, read E. (!) Nesbit’s The Railway Children and fell in love with Roberta.
If boys hear the message that a book is good, they'll read it whether or not it has a girl as a main character. Who gives them that message? We do. Parents, teachers, librarians, publishers, marketing and sales departments with gender specific covers. If boys are refusing to read books where the main character is a girl, it’s because we’re telling them that they shouldn’t. We give them permission to exclude girls from their imaginative world, and that view of the female as 'other' will simply carry on into adulthood. That’s where writers need to draw the battle lines: not how gender specific an author’s name is, but the banishing of girls from the centre stage of life itself. It’s an appalling message to give to children of either sex: that girls cannot be heroes, cannot be the main characters in story or in life.
I happen to be female. That accident of genetics has shaped and coloured who I am, but it is not my primary definition as a person or as a writer. Despite my qualms that Keren may be right, and that I’m somehow betraying my ideals by using my initials, I am considering publishing my next book as E. L. Renner. It’s an older, darker book and I want to distinguish it from my younger fiction. That’s the obvious reason for switching to initials, but I know the issues I listed above will inevitably influence my decision.