Saturday, 26 November 2011

Tiffany-Mae or TM? by Keren David

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?


catdownunder said...

I use initials for "letters to the editor" and people who do not know me. I doubt I would change that. It provides a degree of privacy and security - especially if you live alone or, as I do now, share a house with an elderly parent. (In Australia it is also compulsory to enrol to vote and the electoral roll is a public document so any determined person can find you unless you are one of the privileged few on the "silent" roll.)

Stroppy Author said...

What an interesting question, Keren. It was once suggested to me by a publisher that it might make books easier to sell to boys, but there was no pressure whatsoever and I didn't do it. And wouldn't do it. As you say, it gives all the wrong messages.

To do it for privacy reasons is a slightly different matter, but a bit of a botch. If you don't want people to know you wrote the books, use a pen-name, surely? Using initials is not a very good way of hiding!

madwippitt said...

I used to have a pen name - Stephanie Birchell. It came about when I was writing vast amounts of copy for two magazines, which while aimed at different age-groups, had different publishers who also produced sister magazines aimed at the same target readers ... So we all agreed it was best to adopt a pseudonym for one (also so readers who took both magazines didn't get fed up) But in the end many of the articles ended up without any cover name at all, to ensure it wasn't appearing on an excessive number of pages!
But I sometimes wonder whether Stephanie Birchell might not be a better name to revert to for fiction. I think it sounds more fiction writer-y!

Nicky said...

I was encouraged to use initials by my publisher and have never worried about it. If boys pick up my books assuming I'm a man, like them and then discover I'm not - well, they've learned that 'boys books' can be written by women. Whether they would have learned that more quickly if I used my first name I don't know. When I canvass readers' opinions some boys admit to being put off by a girls' name, though they struggle to defend their response.
I quite like having a gender neutral name in any case though I briefly flirted with the idea of being 'Enem' and becoming a rapper.

Susie Day said...

Love this post, Keren. I find it intensely depressing that the publishing industry's general response to perceived gendered trends in kidlit is to reinforce them.

I've been told I have the perfect 'friendly' sort of name for the type of books I write. Have been hugely tempted to adopt 'Bernard Gitt-Bustard' as a penname ever since.

Midlife Singlemum said...

LOL at Susie's comment. Keren - I think if my name were Trixibelle I would change it by deed poll in order to be taken seriously in the real world. On the other hand, if that were my name, I'd probably have grown up into a Trixibelle.

Nicola Morgan said...

Madwippit - I certainly think Stephanie Birchell sounds more writery and fictiony than madwippit!

tbh, if some readers are alienated by my being a woman, they can go jump! But, would I say that if my publishers suggested I called myself NF Morgan and promised to sell more of my books? No, I'll take the sales, thanks.

I do find it extraordinaly that anyone would choose to read or not read a book based on the gender of the writer. Mind you, I'd be put off but other things than gender: I'd find it hard to be drawn to a book by someone called Arabella Ponsonby-Gussett, for example.

James Dawson said...

I was sort of asked I could be JM Dawson instead of James because they felt Hollow Pike might sound better coming from a female author, so it works both ways...

I said no, because I wanted to bout 'out there' selling books and meeting readers, so didn't see the point.

Sue Ransom said...

Interesting. I was advised by my publisher that my usual name (Sue) wasn't suitable to go on the books. I'm not sure why. Maybe as two actual words and not just names they felt it was odd. They wanted to use Susan, but no-one ever calls me that and I spent years trying to escape it, so that was out of the question. We compromised on my initials (SC). It is a bit strange at school visits when the teachers sometimes introduce me as just 'S' or sometimes 'SC'. I would probably argue more now, but then I was happy to take all the advice I was given.
SC Ransom

Keren David said...

James, you have made my day!
Finding everyone's stories fascinating - Sue, I'd never even have thought of Sue and Ransom both being words, both money-related..hmm, maybe they made your publisher nervous.

James Dawson said...

Glad to be of service!

Susan Price said...

Interesting post, and it is good to get James' point of view, since we're always told this is a woman's problem. It was suggested to me that I adopt a pen-name for some of more varied books, but I refused. And many of my books seem to have a large male fan-base, despite having 'Susan Price' on the cover.

Jasmine Richards said...

Really interesting post, Keren. I have decided to use a pen name with initials for my upcoming teen novel. I've done this for a few reasons. Next year I have two books coming out within a month of each other - one is a fantasy adventure called The Book of Wonders for readers 8+ and the other is a pretty scary story for teenagers, called Oliver Twisted. They are very different books for very different audiences and so I knew I wanted separate names.
My publisher didn't ask me to use initials for my pen name for Oliver Twisted but I wanted something that felt unisex and mysterious. I invented the pen name so that it incorporated elements of my name and my husband’s and I also wanted to give a sense of the atmosphere of the book. I don't disguise that I am a woman because at the back of the book there is going to be an author photo of me and I plan to do lots of events as well!

However, and I have to be honest, it did occur to me that the received wisdom is that boys can be put off by female names and so this was an influencer. I want my books to be read by as many young people as possible and as an author I think ultimately it is my right to choose the name I publish my work under.

Keren David said...

So interesting..Now googling to find out what your name is for Oliver Twisted!

On Twitter yesterday I saw this:

To get your author name take your first and last name, write a book, get it published and put your name on the cover.

Leslie Wilson said...

My name is androgynous, of course - though I get flak from some old-fashioned people who accuse me of perversion, spelling it 'the man's way.' I always refer them to Leslie Caron, who I suspect inspired my parents to consider the name. I dunno how many people think I'm a bloke, though, since authors usually have a biog, and it usually says 'she' if you're female, doesn't it? Unless of course one is VERY cunning and substitutes 'Leslie' or P.M. or whatever initials the author has chosen, for the personal pronoun

Sue said...

Yet another Sue/Susan/Susie here. My first book is going to be published by a small press next year. It's very much a "boy" book and I'm going to go for my initials and my maiden name, partly to distance it from my other life and business and also because it fits the retro-style of the book better.

I can't say that my son (11) really takes much notice of the names of authors or whether they're male or female. He's as happy to read something by Jenny as by JK as by Anthony - although I expect he would probably draw the line at Trixibelle!

Will Shetterly said...

When I wanted to become an author, I thought I would use my initials because that was the authorly way to do it--I briefly considered adding an extra initial in admiration of the pompous ring of JRR Tolkien. But when it came time to decide about my byline, it thought I should either take a pseudonym or go with what my friends call me. I chose the latter.

I suppose my name gives me the same male privilege that's shared with women with androgynous names. But I am always surprised by women who identify as feminists who write under initials rather than a feminine name.

Just as a data point, my wife, Emma Bull, uses the name she's known by. She sells more books than me and many folks who have male or androgynous names.

Will Shetterly said...

PS. I do think there's a good argument for writing under a pseudonym, regardless of your gender.

A defense can be made for initials: they're gender-neutral. But an attack can be made, too: they suggest neutering.