It’s all in the name

Adeela Akmal
September 04,2018

“I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” — Virginia Woolf...

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“I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” — Virginia Woolf

Over the centuries, there have been many great women writers who have published under male or gender-ambiguous pen names because their gender was seen as an obstacle to attracting readers. Moreover, using a male pen name often helped a female author get her foot in the door, past male publishers who didn’t think the literary world was a place for women.

The Bronte sisters published their 19th-century masterpieces as the Bell brothers, because, as Charlotte Bronte wrote, “Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because - without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’ - we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.”

Over a century and a half later, women unfortunately are still facing the same ‘prejudice’ in the literary landscape today. In 2015, writer Catherine Nichols wrote an article in which she outlined the stark difference in responses she received when she sent out her novel manuscript under her own name and a male pseudonym George Leyer. “I sent the six queries I had planned to send that day. Within 24 hours George had five responses - three manuscript requests and two warm rejections praising his exciting project. For contrast, under my own name, the same letter and pages sent 50 times had netted me a total of two manuscript requests... Total data: George sent out 50 queries, and had his manuscript requested 17 times. He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book.”

It makes one wonder if these biases follow us subconsciously too. Does one pass up a book authored by a woman thinking it might not be up to par with the ‘real’ books? When it comes to genres like mystery/thriller and science fiction, we will often find male authors topping the charts. Let’s take J.K. Rowling for example. She chose her initials for ‘Harry Potter’ which was a conscious decision taken by the publisher to give a unisex author name, in order to garner a larger audience including young boys. But even after the much popular series, when she delved in the crime/thriller genre, she opted for a male alter ego, Robert Galbraith for unswayed reviews.

In the local perspective, according to an avid reviewer of Pakistani English literature, Anum Shaharyar, the scenario seems to be somewhat similar. “It helps if you are a male in this industry because you are more likely to be published and reviewed. However, in the last few years this seems to have changed because people are more aware of the issues relating to gender biases with movements like #MeToo which deals issues on a broader spectrum; and ‘We need diverse books’ that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that is diverse and inclusive. We have many good female Anglophone writers who are recognised internationally. However, an interesting thing to note about these writers, male and female alike, is that they all seem to be travellers or people who happen to be international residents like Bapsi Sidhwa, Mohsin Hamid and Kamila Shamsie to name a few. We hardly have any prominent writers who are purely Pakistani, so we are assuming that maybe that somehow boosts your chances to be published as well. Like most careers, the fiction world too remains a somewhat male-dominated arena. There are female writers out there who are being acknowledged but not as much as they should be. Also, we do have lots of female authors writing in local languages but the problem is that we don’t have any statistics to tell us what the status quo is.”

This brings us back to what Virginia Woolf said. We do not lack female aspiring authors who write brilliant stories, neither do we lack readers who enjoy different genres and plots. They are just not given an opportunity to excel. While things have started getting better in recent years, we still have a long way to go.


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