Mary Ann did it. So did Charlotte, Emily and Anne. But why do some of us?
|Heathcliff, in the new film of Wuthering Heights|
Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Eliot. The Bronte sisters adopted male pseudonyms too. They lived in an age where women were denied the vote, were barred from most professions, and, until 1870 if married, could not own property. So it is not surprising that they disguised their gender when presenting their work to the world, especially when the work contains darkly sexual undertones, as does Wuthering Heights.
But now, we’re past all that, aren’t we? Feminism has fought important battles. We’ve had a woman prime minister (soon to be lionised in a new film), we can do any job. We are often the highest earner in the family, we own property, we speak our minds.
Of course there is a long history of authors, both male and female, using pen names and initials, and it was particularly popular in the 1930s,40s and 50s. D H Laurence was not hiding his gender, and nor was C S Lewis. But the practice waned in the less formal Sixties, and with the rise of feminism in the 1970s, one might expect that it would die out. It did not.
|JK Rowling giving evidence this week|
The most famous recent example, of course, is JK Rowling. Read some accounts and her publisher ‘insisted’ that she dropped Joanne or the more neutral ‘Jo’ for JK in order to attract boy readers. Other reports suggest that she and her publisher agreed on the strategy, but again for the same reason. Watching her give evidence this week to the Leveson Inquiry, I wondered if there was another explanation. I was struck by her concern, even right at the start of her career, for her privacy and for that of her children. Maybe adopting initials felt like a good way of preserving her own identity, even before her magnificent success.
But the result, I think, has been the growth of a myth that women authors have to ‘do a JK’ to avoid being shunned by boys. I was talking to a YA writer the other day, and she told me that the first ‘boy’s’ book she wrote came with a suggestion from her publisher's marketing department that she adopt initials - even though her first books were written, very successfully, under her own name. She refused.
I think she was absolutely correct. What message do we give boy readers when they realise that ‘TM’ or whatever is hiding ‘Tiffany-Mae’. Why shouldn’t Tiffany-Mae be worth listening to? What do real girls called Tiffany-Mae (or whatever) think, when they realise their name is somehow unacceptable? And do writers called Michael, Patrick or Marcus ever feel pressure to become Michelle, Patti or Marcie?
I am aware that I am preaching from a fortunate position here, thanks to my parents' decision to pick a name for me which baffles many people into thinking I am really Keiran, Kevin or just a spelling error. The masculine surname (changed from the more exotic Buznic by my grandparents in the 1930s) nudges readers away from associating Keren with Karen. Perhaps if I were named Trixibelle Fotheringay - or even Belinda Buznic - I might not feel it was the best branding for a writer of urban thrillers.
I hope I’d have the gumption to show that there’s nothing that a Trixibelle can’t do. Trixibelle is worth listening to. Trixibelle isn't frilly, or silly, because women are just as strong and sensible as any man.
I’d love to know how others have dealt with the same issue. Have you happily adopted initials or a pen name, and felt that MM or Max had more success than Maxine would have? Or did you have to fight for the right to remain an Arabella?