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The Unashamed Female Writer

February 16, 2013

When I was a kid, I always planned on being published as “A. J. McKenzie.” That is no longer the case. I like my first name, so I might as well show it off. Everywhere that I’ve been published, I’ve used it. And when I finally get one of these novels off the ground, I’ll use it there, too.

Alison J. McKenzie. That’s me.

But whether or not I liked my name had nothing to do with why I was going to stick to my initials. My main motivation was that I didn’t want readers to judge my book at a glance based on whether the author was male or female.

And I just accepted that. Like it was okay that our gender preconceptions are still dictating whether or not something is worth checking out. Like by admitting I’m female, I would lose potential readers, so I should just slip into gender anonymity to be on the safe side.

And if you’re thinking, “That sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore!” You’re wrong. It does.

Female Romance Author of 22 Books Actually 80-Year-Old War Vet Called Bill

Quote from the article:

 “When he approached a publisher for his books, he was told they wouldn’t sell unless it looked like he was a woman, so Jessica Blair was born.”

That makes some sort of sense, right? I mean, if I knew an 80-year-old man wrote the romance novel I was reading, I might be creeped out (I don’t actually read romance, so I don’t know for sure). But it’s not his age that’s the trouble. If it was an 80-year-old woman, I would just think it was quaint. So why do I think that? Why can only women write romance novels?

I suppose it’s because they’re books targeted at a female audience. Perhaps we believe that only women understand women. But if the writing itself proves that assumption wrong, then what good is it? It’s sexist. Plain and simple.

“Well,” you say, “that’s one particular situation, and it is romance, after all. You don’t even write romance. You write fantasy and horror and science fiction. So I don’t see why you think it would affect you.” Well, look at J.K. Rowling. You probably already know that her full name is Joanna Rowling and she doesn’t actually have a middle initial. Her publisher thought her book, which would be marketed towards children, would not appeal to boys if they knew she was a woman.1

For another example, look at “James Chartrand.” The name’s in quotes because it’s a pen name. She found that by writing under a male name2, blogging opportunities suddenly opened up. A quote from her blog post on the issue:

Understand, I hadn’t advertised more effectively or used social media — I hadn’t figured that part out yet. I was applying in the same places. I was using the same methods. Even the work was the same.

In fact, everything was the same.

Except for the name.

When I was much younger, I read The Legend of Nightfall by Mickey Zucker Reichert, and it became one of my favorite book. There’s a thief/assassin who is a total asshole, and he’s one of my favorite characters ever because the book is mostly his running commentary on how stupid the other guy is. The other guy is an idiotic prince. The two main characters are dudes. There’s a ton of action and fighting and general manliness. Mickey Mouse is a boy mouse. I totally assumed Mickey Zucker Reichert was a guy.

When I found out she was, in fact, a “she,” I was flabbergasted! I felt like I’d been lied to! If I’d known she was female, it would have changed so much! Except it actually wouldn’t have changed anything. Because when I read the book, I really enjoyed it. The book was a good book. Looking back on it, I do see the “womanly touches” that I missed before, but why should that matter? Why does it? Because somehow, it still matters. Somehow, it still affects my judgment.

And if it affects my judgment, as a female reader who is all about gender equality, who else is affected? Who else is judging books by their author’s gender without even realizing it?

I challenge you to pay attention when you go into book stores. When you’re browsing books, looking at book covers and reading the backs, see if at any point you make a judgment based on the author’s gender.

If you have more than half a brain cell, you know that sexism isn’t dead. If you think it is, try being a female working in a comic book store. Or just try being a female going to a comic book store to buy something. Those cracks that “women don’t buy Magic cards” haven’t been funny for…okay, they were never funny.

It’s not funny because I’m tired of it. I’m tired of the fact that I’m female being called out. Shouldn’t we be over this by now? Why does it matter? Why does it still matter?

And why is there this voice in the back of my head that says I may be shooting myself in the foot if I proudly display my gender?

While I was researching this post, I stumbled across this gem of a blog post:

The first sentence is, and I quote, “I don’t like reading books by women.” The author’s argument is mostly about the fact he doesn’t read romance. So why isn’t the quote, “I don’t like reading books about romance”? Because there’s also a style difference. This has some credence to it, I’ll grant that. Just look at the Gender Guesser.3 Now, he talks about stereotypes and why they can be useful. I’m not going to get into that. But I think saying, “I don’t like reading books by women,” is a really bold statement. “I tend to not enjoy books by women” is a statement I’d buy. But he makes it sound like no female writer (except for J.K. Rowling, who he enjoys but puts on a “facade of indifference” so he doesn’t—get this—get stereotyped as a nerd) could ever hold his interest. Okay, he prefers nautical books. They’re mostly written by men. That’s cool. But “I don’t like reading books by women” is straight up sexist. He talks about how it’s okay to admit there’s differences between genders. I see no problem with that. But there’s a difference between “I tend to not like the female writing style” and “I don’t like reading books by women.”

Sure, this is just one guy, but how many are out there who feel exactly the same way who don’t have blogs and don’t feel they need to tell everyone that they don’t read books by women? How many people would pass by my novels in the book store just because of my name?

Part of me does want to go back to the initials, the safe “A.J. McKenzie.” Or start going by “Alan McKenzie.” For the sake of readership. For the sake of sales.

But I won’t. Because I shouldn’t have to.


J.K. Rowling: A Biography
Initials: Why Are Authors So Keen On Them?
Female Writers Don’t Get Bylines—And It’s Not Always Their Fault
Apparently Gender Guesser thinks my fantasy novel was written by a male.


From → General Advice

  1. “But I won’t. Because I shouldn’t have to.”
    This. Like, a hundred times.
    I’m mostly be surrounded by people who don’t care about such technicalities like whether their favourite book was written by a dude or a gal, but reading stuff from people like this guy makes me wonder if he is an exception, or if I’m just incredibly lucky… ô.O
    Maybe they should start selling books without names on them, only numbers, and you have to look that number up after you bought the book…

    Random fact: The Gender Guesser sorts me between “male” and “weak female”. I don’t think this thing knows what it’s doing…^^
    Or we are all completely wrong and there are absolutely no differences between male and female writing, and it’s all in our heads. Cool.

    • Yeah, I’m not entirely sure what its parameters are, but it doesn’t seem very accurate. You know, the numbers thing may not be a bad idea, except that people generally prefer to follow authors that they like. Unless the numbers represented authors and were consistent.

      • That’s what I meant. You can still follow your favourite authors via their personal numbers, but as a first-time reader, you can’t tell who wrote the book without a bit of effort, so you are more likely to judge only the book, not the author. And if you like the book, you won’t care (as much) who wrote it. At least that’s the general idea…

      • That could be interesting.

  2. Whoa, I always had the same thought. That if I ever published I’d go with initials. Partly so they wouldn’t know my gender, partly because I’d want to be anonymous. As a woman writer, even I’m nervous about reading books by women, because they’re so much more likely to have sappiness. Not that all women write sappy. But I think more women do than men.
    We SHOULDN’T judge based on gender, but I doubt it’s ever going to go away. I think your reasons for choosing to use your name are good. I’m still a scaredy-cat and am still thinking initials 🙂

    • It does seem like the safer path, doesn’t it? And no, I don’t think it will ever go away. But I also don’t think that means we should stop fighting against it. It’s still a tough decision, though. Going with initials does seem easier.

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