Gender-Neutral Author Names
By Nick Chhoeun
I recently came across a segment on BBC News titled “Why Some Male Authors Are Hiding Their Gender.” In the segment, author Allison Pearson talks about male authors going by gender-neutral names. We are familiar with writers like Mary Ann Evans going by male pseudonyms like George Eliot in order to be taken seriously as writers, but the idea of a modern-day, male name reversal is amusing to me. I’ve never felt that the gender of an author influenced my decision to read a book.
Pearson and the BBC host discuss a few potential reasons for male authors taking gender-neutral pen names. The first reason they present is commercial; a survey in The Times shows that 46 of the 50 most-read books among female readers are written by women. Male readers also tend to purchase books written by male writers—but women comprise 60 percent of the book-buying market. Maybe male authors are using gender-neutral pen names to attain more sales.
Recently, male writers have been criticized for writing poorly conceived female characters. In her article “All Cleavage and Chunkiness – Why Can’t Male Authors Write Women?” Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett claims that men may find it difficult to accurately write female characters because women aren’t well-represented in books. “Perhaps it is because we grow up reading novel after novel offering insight into the male psyche.” It’s not simply “because men aren’t women, it is challenging to write as women.” Cosslett also says women writers do not have trouble writing from the male perspective in stories.
In his article “Twitter Challenge Proves Male Authors Don’t Know How to Write About Women” John Bonazzo shows tweets depicting poor depictions of female character in response to podcaster Whit Reynolds’ Twitter challenge: “describe yourself like a male author would.” The responses contain sexualized and dismissive examples that mimic what people often come across in books.
Is the gender-neutral trend good? It sounds great that women are doing very well in the literary world in terms of what is being read and sold. Men changing their names to more gender-neutral ones is wrong because, unlike Mary Ann Evans having to go by George Elliot, men are doing this merely for exposure and commercial gain. These male authors should focus on improving their writing instead of finding ways to manipulate readers. An effective writer should be able to write characters of any gender and be able to use his or her language to bring any character to life.
Names should not dictate whether or not someone chooses to read a book. It’s the themes, characters, plots, conflicts, genre, etc. that should influence a person’s interest. This trend, as I see it, is identifying longstanding gender issues. We should be focusing on learning how to write accurate characters of all genders in stories—not on book sales. Writers who are putting in the time and effort to craft their best stories will always find success, regardless of their names.
Nick Chhoeun is a staff editor at Café MFA and a first-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.