Monday, March 8, 2010

Pseudonyms

Day 27 of the “What are you reading, and why?” project.

Reprinting below an earlier comment in this blog, and Doug's follow-up comments regarding pen names:

Douglas Robillard said...

"I just reread Julie Phillips' intriguing biography, JAMES TIPTREE, JR.: THE DOUBLE LIFE OF ALICE B. SHELDON. Under the Tiptree pen-name Sheldon wrote some brilliant, award-winning science fiction with a feminist slant. (See "Houston, Houston Do You Read," "The Women Men Don't See"; under the pseudonym Raccoon Sheldon, she published the absolutely horrifying short story "The Screwfly Solution"; and other noteworthy stories--one of my favorite SF authors). She maintained the pretense of being male until 1976 when she was "unmasked." Her insistence on a male identity created some awkward and poignant situations in her correspondence with Ursula K. LeGuin and Joanna Russ on feminist issues.

"Sheldon had an amazing career before turning to writing. She served in the military during WWII; interrogated Nazi scientists after the war; and worked in the nascent CIA in the 1950s. In the 60s, she completed a Ph.D. in experimental psychology (see her story "The Psychologist Who Wouldn't Do Awful Things to Rats") and, almost incidentally, started writing SF when heart problems forced her to abandon her academic career. There is also a dark side to her story: she and her aged husband had a suicide pact, which she carried out when life became unendurable.

"Most of her work, alas, appears to be out of print, though her best stories continue to be reprinted in SF anthologies.The connection between an author's name and writing identity is fascinating, don't you think? The Tiptree nom de plume apparently gave Sheldon license to speak with what she perceived as male authority.

"On the subject of women's bylines: Consider how Mary F. O'Connor dropped her first name and used her middle name to become Flannery O'Connor. Or how another Georgian, Lula Carson Smith McCullers, combined her middle name and married name to arrive at Carson McCullers. While not strictly 'male,' the names Flannery and Carson are sufficiently ambiguous."

Thanks to Doug for discussing two fascinating topics here--the science fiction writer herself and the choice of some women to use "male" pen names. There are many examples of this, and I know women writing today who prefer to use their initials rather than announce themselves with a female-sounding first name, saying that it's because they want to be taken seriously. So the fear of being dismissed simply because one is a woman still exists.

I don't think the problems are all solved yet, but it seems to me that anyone with a voice has a place to sing these days, and I am glad of it.

Yesterday afternoon a man came into the store looking for particular science fiction authors. He writes science fiction, general fiction, and poetry under three different names, and only the poetry under his own given name.

Discussion?

14 comments:

Susan said...

The question that comes to mind (at least for me) is one of intended audience... If women writers are choosing names that sound either masculine or androgynous as their nom de plumes, is it because they want to be read and appreciated by a male audience?

I ask because I am drawn to books written by women, and tend to choose works--including science fiction works--by women authors. Do other women feel the same way? Are they more interested in work written by women? If so, wouldn't keeping a clearly "female" sounding name help generate interest among women readers?

Or, do many women who read sci fi have more "respect" for male-sounding writers? Most of the women I know enjoy reading what other women are writing, but maybe I'm out of touch.

Another question: Do publishers take work more seriously if they think it's been written by a man? I have to wonder why this kind of thing is still going on... though I'm sure that some publishers are biased when it comes to gender, it would be interesting to track down some statistics regarding work published by men v. work published by women. I do know more men publish...I'm curious as to how heavily the scale is tipped towards the masculine....

I love Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, Ursula LeGuin & many others. Science fiction really can be a wonderfully transgressive space for women... I don't think of it as a "masculine" genre at all...

I've read some Sheldon/Tiptree. The story that comes to mind is "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" which is a very femme-centric piece. I wish more women wrote science fiction, regardless of the names they might choose to publish under...

Kathleen said...

I hope that the days are done when women had to use pseudonyms in order to be published, or to have their work taken seriously by critics or readers, but....? Doug's examples come from the past, so I, too, would be interested in hearing about what's going on in the present.

Susan said...

I am thinking about J.K. Rowling. I read somewhere that she used her initials because she didn't think boys would read Harry Potter if they knew it was written by a woman. (This was, I believe, in the early days before *everyone* knew her face & her work.)

I imagine it still happens, although perhaps not as much as in the not-so-distant past...

Kathleen said...

I do know people have pen names for different genres, and that, indeed, people will choose pen names that better fit their intended audiences. Kids are sensitive on the "boy" and "girl" books issue sometimes!

aka Simone said...

Susan, I also tend to prefer fiction written by women, though of course there are many male authors whose work I adore. I love the 3 authors you mentioned regarding sci-fi. Have you read The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell? These are 2 of my faves and Kathleen likes them as well.

Anonymous said...

Another science fiction / fantasy author who wrote for decades under an "ambiguous" name: Andre Norton - who legally changed her name from Alice Mary Norton back in 1934 in order to increase the marketability of her work in that "not so distant past".

When I began reading her work, my first thought was "did she change it to avoid confusion with Mary Norton?" (The author of The Borrowers.) Then I did the math and figured out that Mary Norton started publishing after Andre Norton changed her name. And then, (slow me) I realized the weird gender assumptions about authors and their readers.

Now, as always, I read what I read without regard to who writes it (unless, of course, I can't stand them - then, sometimes, against my will, I read it, though if so it's usually just in order to tear it to pieces).

Though I crunch numbers professionally, I haven't done an analysis of recent pen names. And even when I think about the "dated" pen names of the 1930s through 1970s, the mix that I come up with are both men and women - with some of it driven by ghosting, some of it by virtue of the desire of publishers of pulp magazines to have more than one name show up as the author(s) of the stories in a single issue, and some of it by the desire to maximize sales by separating the different genres under different author names (and apparent genders). Definitely not a scientific sample, even if I've been an eclectic reader for a long time. It would be interesting to see that done, but I just don't have the time (unfortunately).

Bob

Mike Peterson said...

Kathleen: Flannery O'Connor was an author I've never heard of until I read Francine Prose's "Reading Like a Writer" and had her recommended to me. She is a great writer, of course. Would I have been less likely to read her if she were called Mary? No! I was never a fan of Alice Munro because because she wrote short stories only, but her "Selected Stories" changed my mind.

Kathleen said...

We have lots of Andre Norton at Babbitt's so I had read about her pen name.

I like Bob's reminder of the various & commercial reasons for pen names, which reminds me of a strange theatre review our little Shakespeare company got back in the 1980s...which I finally realized was connected to an interview I'd given to a person with a completely different name! He was "hiding" behind this pen name in a way.

Mike, so glad you found Flannery O'Connor. She's a favorite of mine. So is Alice Munro!

Kathleen said...

And I love Mary Doria Russell. I remember a friend telling me about her books years ago and me sort of resisting, thinking I'd "outgrown" my science fiction phase. I hadn't. In these two books, Russell is science fiction, cultural anthropology, and comparative religion all rolled into one!

Sometime soon I need to read Philip K. Dick. People keep recommending him to me. (Hmm, is that a pseudonym?!)

Douglas Robillard said...

Wow, I loved Andre Norton as a kid! Her books were in the school library, along with juveniles by Alan E. Nourse and Robert Heinlein, all of whom I devoured at a tender age. I still have some older Ace paperbacks of Norton.

I haven't read Mary Doria Russell yet, though my wife has and recommends her highly. We have CHILD OF GOD and THE SPARROW. Any suggestions?

I am a big fan of Philip K. Dick (his real name, btw). A good place to start is his excellent novel, THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, set in an alternate world in which Japan and Nazi Germany have won WWII and divided the U.S. between them. The eponymous character is a writer who publishes a controversial book in which the United States won the Second World War, but the world described therein is not the one we know. There is evidence that a multiplicity of parallel worlds exists, each different from the last. The implication is that the world we know is not "the original," but only another variation on the theme.

I know the critics raved about the movie BLADERUNNER, but next to the original novel, DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP, I thought it was decidedly dumbed-down.

Library of America has recently reprinted 14 of PKD's novels in a handsome, three-volume hardcover edition. HIGH CASTLE and ANDROIDS are in the first volume. Due to financial exigency and the low advances paid for paperback original SF novels in the 1960s and 70s, PKD wrote voluminously; his output includes 8-10 really outstanding novels, a handful of indifferent books, and two or three downright stinkers. The L of A collections are all top-notch stuff.

I think Southern Illinois University Press published several volumes of PKD's short stories.

Ursula LeGuin gave PKD high praise, calling him "our homegrown Jorge Luis Borges."

Julie Kistler said...

My comment involves a book about a woman pretending to be a man, not a woman taking a pseudonym, but I found this book very interesting way back when. It's Rita Mae Brown's "High Hearts," about a woman who dresses as a man so that she can fight in the Civil War. Brown notes that a few (or maybe more than a few) women actually did pass as men to become soldiers in that war. The book is funny and zippy, as Rita Mae Brown tends to be, and I really enjoyed it when I read it long ago. Now I feel the need to reread it to see if it still passes muster.

There's also an intriguing Hollywood story that may be a myth, but it's definitely out there. Supposedly actress Alice Brady was quite ill on and off during her career, so a gay man named Arthur Blake stepped in to perform for her when she just couldn't make it. This deception went on for years, says an internet gossip guy, and Arthur Blake was even responsible for part of Brady's Oscar-winning performance in "In Old Chicago." I find it all quite suspect, but who knows? It makes a good story!

Julie Kistler said...

Oh, and one other comment -- it sometimes worked the other way with authors. IOW, sometimes being manly wasn't marketable, either. So a man named Tom Huff who wanted to write historical romances chose "Jennifer Wilde" as his pseudonym to be accepted by female romance readers.

Kathleen said...

Neat stories, info, and recommendations here, Julie, et al!

I had read before about female soldiers in the Civil War, and that plays a crucial part in the Civil War re-enactment subplot of the novel Disobedience by Jane Hamilton, in which email plays a major role as well.

Susan said...

Oh! I have not read any Mary Doria Russell! I'm going to have to add her to my "to read" list!