Women Writers: What’s In a Name?

I want to start off by saying — this is nothing new. What I’m writing about has been goin’ on FOR-EV-ER. BUT. It’s recently been gaining momentum in the news. Which means people are talking about it — and by “it”, I mean women. Specifically, women writers. More specifically, women writers and society’s preconceptions about women writers.

So what are these news tidbits? First up — we have “My So-Called ‘Post-Feminist’ Life in Arts and Letters” by Deborah Copaken Kogan, talking about her experiences as a woman in the publishing industry. She titled her first book Shuttergirl — the publisher insisted on Shutterbabe, a title that (duh) negatively impacted how many saw the book.

There’s, of course, Wikipedia’s now infamous decision to create an American Women Novelists sub-category. Rather than, you know, just putting them with the rest of the (male) American Novelists.

And last but not least, there is the fascinating “Coverflip” by Maureen Johnson, challenging people to swap the “gender” of book covers:

I asked people to take a well-known book, then to imagine the author of that book was of the opposite gender, or was genderqueer, and imagine what that cover might look like. Because we have these expectations in our heads already.

Coverflip made painfully clear that we DO judge a book by its cover. Some covers look more “manly” (or at least gender neutral), while others look decidedly “girly”. And women writers — no matter the actual content of their books — often get stuck with a “girly” cover (or in the case of Deborah Copaken Kogan, a sexy title). And those girly covers turn off a lot of readers — aka, men. And hell, some women, too; I admit to being put off by pink covers with cursive titles.

But another thing about Coverflip caught my attention. Many of the redesigned covers don’t just feature different artwork and fonts — they have different names. Stephen King becomes “S. King”. Sarah J. Maas transforms into “S.J. Maas”. Which indicates that many readers aren’t only put off by cover artwork — they’re put off by the name on that cover.

This all, to me, brings up a very big question. I hope to publish a book someday, and when I do — should I publish under my real name? Or use an androgynous pseudonym, a la J.K. Rowling? Rowling’s publisher suggested she use a pseudonym, as a woman writer might be off-putting to boys. Which — ARGH, right? But those are the facts of the matter. That’s the world we’re operating in. If you’re a woman writer, there’s a high chance that your potential readership is going to drastically drop just because, to quote Margaret Atwood, you’re part of the “Writers Who Are Also Women” group.

So do you play the system to your advantage? Write under a pseudonym, knowing you’re likely to fare better, and then shock all the haters when it turns out that *gasp* you have boobs? Or do you write under your own name to “fight the good fight”? Prove that, yes, in fact, women CAN write.

I don’t have any answers to this. It’s a complicated issue and something I ponder. A lot. But I’m always curious to hear others’ take on the matter, particularly other women writers.

So tell me — if you’re a woman. Who happens to be a writer. What do you do? And guys, we don’t want to exclude you — do you tend to ignore books with “girly” covers?

(Edited to add — you may also want to check out the yin to this post’s  yang: Strong Female Characters.)

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