Last month author Catherine Nichols went public with her account of sending her novel manuscript to literary agents under a male pseudonym. A writing sample sent to 50 agents in her own name resulted in only two manuscript requests. Seventeen out of 50 agents requested the same materials from “George Leyer”.
Were the agents exhibiting a subconscious gender bias that assumes the superiority of male authors? Or were they responding to the practicalities of a reviewing culture and audience that can overlook or even reject women’s literature?
Watch J.K. Rowling’s interview with the TODAY show below. Post continues after video.
Women’s fiction is reviewed less often than men’s in major publications. Even though women buy two thirds of all books sold in the UK, they are much less likely to be reviewing books in male-dominated literary magazines.
And some audiences, such as young boys, are presumed to be entirely unwilling to read books written by women. J.K. Rowling’s publisher felt that an obviously female name like “Joanne” would dissuade boys from reading the debut Harry Potter novel.
The unpublished Rowling was simply happy to be published and said in an interview that “they could have called me Enid Snodgrass”. But Enid Snodgrass would have had the same sales handicap as Joanne Rowling—a woman’s name.
Most discussions of contemporary women writers who have adopted male pseudonyms or initials to mask their sex draw connections between these writers and a long line of literary women, such as the Brontë sisters and George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), who have published under assumed names.
What is less recognised is that the cultural reasons behind women writers concealing their names have shifted dramatically since the nineteenth century.
Today female names vanish to avoid industry and reader perceptions of what women’s fiction is like. Historically, in the British tradition, female names were hidden because of the perceived inappropriateness of women writing novels.
To understand this difference, it is important to know that the very act of reading novels was heavily policed for girls and women in the nineteenth century.