Wednesday 30 November 2011

Initial Response: on gender and writing - Ellen Renner

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.


Stroppy Author said...

Thank you for giving us the chance to discuss this further, Elen - it's a challenging question.

'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'm not at all sure about this. *I* think the way to address it is to challenge it by writing good books openly as a woman rather than being bullied by the status quo into hiding behind an ambiguous name. If a writer genuinely thinks their work will get a better or wider reception if they pretend to be a man (or pretend not to be a woman), isn't that perpetuating the iniquitous situation?

It's a bit like people who claim state education should be improved but send their own kids to private schools - the more rich kids with influential parents who leave the system, the less likely it is to change. The more successful authors who don't come out as women, the harder it is for everyone to say 'look at these successful women authors'. It's the old conflict of personal benefit versus common good. So I'm very glad that your success to date has been under the name 'Elen' and not under initials.

I do see the problem with writing a different type of book and not wanting to lead younger readers to it by being the same person - that's a rather different issue. (Every now and then, I get requests from the Library of Congress to distinguish myself from the 'other' Anne Rooney who has the same birth date and writes very different books. Durrrr.)

Penny Dolan said...

An excellent post and a good argument for your choice for your next book. I was keen on initials as a neutral name but think my decision against was because my particular run of sounds felt awkward to say.

Now it's a matter authors do need to think about early on because of the author brand marketing approach. I groan when I see how many series exist under made up and heavily gendered male and female names.

Susie Day said...

I'm afraid I'm with Stroppy on this. You make a hugely powerful case for why we should fight back against gender stereotyping (towards both boys and girls) in our main characters, in book marketing etc, and I wholeheartedly agree - so why doesn't the same apply to the name that goes on the book cover?

Who gives them that message? We do you say. What message does 'I don't want you to know a woman wrote this' give?

I absolutely see why you'd want a different name to distinguish titles a different audience (though I'd hope covers, blurbs etc would do that job for you), but that's a separate issue, I think.

Nicky said...

Its not abut disguising gender but presenting oneself as gender neutral - as some male writers also do. I write for boys and girls and while I have written as 'Nicola' am about to write as' Nick' I do not see I'm betraying anyone by writing as 'N M' . My books are about brave girls and courageous boys and I want both to pick up my books. My stories are all about boys and girls saving each other, often written in part from the girl's point of view. I want to seduce boys as well as girls into reading and if keeping my gender ambiguous makes that easier why wouldn't I? My books say - 'it doesn't matter who you are, you can be a hero' I like to think that the neutrality of my name reinforces that.
Since when do we women have to choose to label ourselves in ways that other women have decided is more appropriate? I find the view that there is only one acceptable way to do that deeply irritating.

Nicky said...

Whoops - sorry about the punctuation mistakes!

Keren David said...

Funnily enough if you called yourself L N Renner you'd hardly notice the difference.
I'm convinced by the urge to remain anonymous. I've been a journalist all my adult life, so it's natural for me to see my name in print, and if I want to disappear I can use my husband and kids' surname (there's another feminist naming dilemma). I can see why an author might want to use initials to let their work speak for them. But I do think it can be harmful, and I doubt it's as useful a marketing ploy as we think.

Anne Cassidy said...

Very interesting this. In the adult crime genre many of the best selling (Val McDermid) and critically acclaimed (Kate Atkinson) are women. Men seem to have no trouble picking up boo0ks by women there. The key here is why don't boys read? I think saying that they don't read because it's written by a woman is a cop out. They don't read because they don't read (a whole host of reasons for this - I speak having had a teenage son who simply stopped reading fiction for about eight years, Since the age about 22 he started again)BUT this is not us, the writers, fault. So nothing we do will change this. It's like changing the colour of a price sticker to make an item look cheaper. But it's the economic crisis that's stopping people buying not the colour of the price tag.

Having said all this I LOVE the idea of you using initials to indicate a different type of book. Good for you.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

My husband, children's author Greg Leitich Smith, and I often travel and speak together.

It's become expected for people to frequently praise him for simply being a man per se who writes.(Or, for that matter, cooks.)

On a practical level, though, I think relying only on initials requires a particularly marketable last name, one that readers (and for that matter, fellow publishing pros) will be able to recognize.

C.L. Smith would be awfully generic, and C.L. Leitich would be awfully tough to pronounce.

That said, much terrific insight to ponder here. Thank you for a thought-provoking post.

Ellen Renner said...

I am going, of course, to disagree with Anne and Susie. If I choose to write under my initials I will do so without feeling in the least hypocritical. I have no desire to 'hide behind an ambiguous name'; merely to take gender out of the equation.

My main point being that I am a person first, a woman second (or tenth, actually, after parent, writer, artist, biker, musician, fencer, spinner of wool, weaver and knitter ...).

To tell me I have to put my full name on the covers of my books as an identifying female tag or I risk somehow letting the sisterhood down seems to me as proscriptive as telling a black or disabled writer that they must identify themselves as black or disabled first, and writer second, so I agree with Nicky on that one.

Anne C: good point about women crime writers.

Anyway, the best thing we can do about gender issues is exactly this: talk about them, express differences of opinion and air the subject. We don't have to agree for it to be a useful exercise.

So thanks for all those thoughts!

Nicky said...

Well, some boys read. I've had three sons and they all read - not always novels and rarely my books, but they read and I'm not about to give up on boys as a lost cause just because they are a harder to reach audience.
To my mind it is more important to challenge gender stereotypes that suggest that boys will never read or will only read stories about pooh and/or zombies than to waste time worrying about what gender stereotypes we might possibly reinforce in our name choices. It's trivial: the problem of getting more boys to engage with books is not.

Liz Kessler said...

This is a really interesting discussion.

Ellen, I don't think that Anne and Susie said that you were 'letting the sisterhood down', or told you that you have to do anything.

I can't help agreeing with Susie's point - which is simply that your whole argument about why we shouldn't stop girls from being the main characters just to get boys reading then seems to be turned on its head with your argument about not identifying ourselves as female, because this might put boys off too! Not saying you should or shouldn't do anything - just that the argument seems a little contradictory.

But I totally agree with you that we must absolutely use whatever name we want, and for whatever reasons we want. I have struggled for some time about a book that I'd like to get published one day, and for lots of my own reasons (which I'm sure some people would argue with if I made them public!) I would most probably do this under a different name. And I have no responsibility to anyone other than myself and my books if I do this - like you.

I think it's perfectly acceptable for us to balance our ideals with a desire for commercial success, and it's up to each one of us where we draw the line between the two.

Good luck with your next book!


Ellen Renner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Katherine Langrish said...

It's a fascinating discussion. I publish as Katherine Langrish, and I know boys do read my books. In fact I once did a poll of all my online fanmail, wherever I COULD figure out if the writer was male or female writer's sex (not always obvious) and it worked out about 50/50 for boys and girls writing to me. Personally I think cover illustrations have much more effect on whether boys will pick up a book, than the known sex of the author: but I do have a suspicion that male authors get taken more seriously by adult critics.

Katherine Langrish said...

Whoops, sorry about the mixed up sentence, but you get my drift.