….by Karna Small Bodman
When you are buying a book, do you care of it’s written by a man or a woman? If you’re a woman do you instinctively pick up a novel with a woman’s name on the front cover or vice versa if you’re a man? And what about author’s names that don’t give you a clue to whether a woman wrote it or a man did such as J. P. Delaney, A. J. Finn, or J. K Rowling (okay, so we know that’s a woman, but she later used the pen name Robert Galbraith), or “gender neutral” names like Riley Sager, Dima Zales or (here’s a clever pen name I found on Amazon) A. American.
|J. K. Rowling, a.k.a. Robert Galbraith|
It turns out that some of these authors go to great lengths to “disguise” who they really are. And their publishers cooperate by eliminating the usual book jacket photo, avoiding male or female pronouns in an author’s bio, even keeping the author from appearing on book tours. As one male author writing female narratives put it, “I didn’t want to have people think I’m trying to deceive them, but at the same time I think it’s cool to have a little mystery.”
The world has certainly changed since Mary Ann Evans decided she had to write under the name George Eliot to be taken seriously back in Victorian times.
|Mary Ann Evans, a.k.a. George Eliot|
In fact, according to an interesting front page article in a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal several male authors are trying to give the impression that they are female since their novels are written in a woman’s voice, and they’re afraid their stories won’t be seen as “authentic” by women book buyers. Adding to the incentive, they have learned that 59% of all fiction (according to NPD Books) are purchased by women.
In addition to “name confusion” there is the question of whether a male author really can adopt a female persona when writing his story. I remember hearing New York Times bestselling author Andrew Gross explain how he got his start. He said that of several writers James Patterson was considering as a co-author, he chose Andrew because he felt that Andrew could really write from a feminine point of view. When asked how he did it, he explained that for some 20 years he had worked for a company selling women’s lingerie.
The same question can be asked of a female author, of course. How do we construct a scene where a villain is talking to his partner in crime if we’ve never been a villain or had an illegal thought in our heads? All of us authors, particularly my Rogue colleagues who write thrillers, suspense, and international intrigue, have to figure out the “GMC” of each of our characters…that’s a term we learn in our Thrillerfest conference workshops — it stands for Goal, Motivation and Conflict – which each character needs to have in order to construct a great story.
How do we – how does any author – identify with a goal of world dominance or a motivation of extreme revenge? Ah – now you have the challenge we all face: to dream up scenarios, interview interesting characters from all walks of live and do extensive research for each of our novels. As for me, when I was a TV reporter and anchor in San Francisco, I remember gaining access to a prison where I interviewed a member of the Charles Manson gang. I subsequently learned that Manson’s mother once sold him to a waitress for a pitcher of beer. That mother along with his uncle ended up in jail for committing several robberies. Bad seed? Bad childhood? Bad experiences? None of that could in any way excuse his later involvement in seven murders – and yet authors (and screen writers) have figured out just how to portray these monsters in believable novels and films.
Another of my own experiences “learning” about goals and motivations was when I had to write news stories and go on the air to describe the kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the “Symbionese Liberation Army” and her eventual acceptance of their goals by joining the group. (What a wild story that turned out to be!).
So yes, authors do have to “identify” with each of their characters, figure out how they would act, what they would say, and make it all believable to the reader. And yes, it is quite a challenge but one that my fellow Rogue authors have done with great success.
You have writers like our own Francine Mathews who figured out how to write great dialogue attributed to the young Jack Kennedy in her novel, Jack 1939. She writes under her own name and uses her photo on her website and book jackets. No question about her identity.
Then you have other Rogue authors, Jamie Freveletti and Gayle Lynds writing Jason Bourne thrillers, K. J. Howe creating a new novel about kidnappers, S. Lee Manning conjuring up a male Russian protagonist in her upcoming thriller. Chris Goff has a story, Red Sky, about Chinese prisoners and international intrigue, and Sonja Stone writes about a 16-year-old who is in training to be a spy (Okay, so she’s raising teenagers, which helps when you’re handling realistic dialogue, just as I have four sons and listening to their banter gives me all sorts of ideas.) All of my Rogue friends here have worked hard to “climb into the heads” of their heroes, heroines, villains and secondary characters — not an easy task, but one with great rewards once an author can see she has a book on the shelf at Barnes & Noble.
So the question is: what books have you read where a female author portrays a male character in a very realistic way or where a male author can truly write from a woman’s perspective? And when YOU select a book to read, does it matter to you whether it was written by a woman, a man, or an author with a “mystery” name? Please leave a comment and give us your thoughts — we’d love to know.
…Karna Small Bodman
Great post, Karna. Great history of gender hiding in the literary world. I absolutely agree that the most important element of any novel is the author's ability to get inside the characters' heads – regardless of the gender of the characters or the author. I hope we will reach a point when readers do not consider gender of the author when deciding to read or not read a particular book, but will base their decisions on the quality of the writing.
Thanks Karna terrific read and excellent topic. Jim Harrison. For example, was one of the outstanding writers of the female voice and Perspective. Dalva in particular. Thanks for this excellent piece.
A wonderful essay, Karna. It's a question I think many of us are weary of, but yet it persists. You've put it marvelously in perspective – there are no easy answers, but the goal is clear: Books that are chosen for their quality, not because of the sex of the author. Thank you!
I enjoyed this piece very much. I never think of gender when I select a book, the book is either by and author whose work I have come to love or one that is being recommended, by various professional sources including friends and family. To me, the words "Author" and "Writer" are non-specific to gender which leads me to conclude that we really should be conditioned to disregard this as an issue. Perhaps we always were until marketing. But, like Gayle comments, it persists. To what end and purpose, I wonder? Marketing is the only thing I can think. A good, authentic writer is already inside the character or vice versa. After all, a piece of each of us is the genesis of every character. In other words, I never think of it unless I am looking for a specific author, not gender. ~MW
As a bookseller I see women purchase books by both genders but rarely see men buy books by women. If a cover is girly most men dont buy it. Women dont care if a bookcover is manly they will still purchase it.so in a world where booksales matter if you want to reach both audiences the cover needs to be gender nuetral.
Great post, Karna. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I agree with Anonymous above, who kind of stole my point. Women readily read–and buy–books written by men. But my experience is that men prefer books written by male authors. Why? I'm shrugging. The old double standard? Anyway, I'm thinking about which male authors paint women well and vice versa; that may take a while!
I, too, agree that women (who as you pointed out buy 59% of the books) are more open to either gender. Women buy Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Robert Parker, etc., while a lot of men refuse to give a female author a try. Some, though, like Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta novels capture a lot of male readers. The exception proves the rule, right? Great post, Karna!
Being an author-specific type of reader, I am more inclined to purchase the work of a writer who is a friend of a friend. In this case, Gayle Lynda is the catalyst to all of these wonderful authors who are now on my Wish List. Thankfully,I am not at all gende influenced.
PS Will honorably share this exceptional essay. THANK YOU ♡
Thank you all for these great comments. As the one by the bookseller, and others, point out — women will buy books by either male or female authors — whereas many men are stuck on this OLD belief that only men can write thrillers. Times have certainly changed – and yes, marketing and word-of-mouth certainly is the key to letting our men friends know about all the great novels written by women. We all have to work on spreading the word.
I choose books based on genre/plot. Author gender only comes into play when I'm making an effort to diversify my TBR pile: men and women, multiple ethnicities, multiple religions/cultures. I enjoy reading different takes on the same genre. I try to include everybody and not exclude anybody.
I also choose books by genre/plot. I am a big fan of S.J. Rozan's Bill Smith. Robert Crais has a great female protagonist in Carol Starkey (Demolition Angel). I just read Michael Connelly's latest, The Late Show. I wish I had created a character like Renee Ballard. There always seem to be people telling writers to stay in their lane, but the writers who get out of their lane are the ones who blow your hat off.