Mr. Act sent me this interesting article today about men using female pseudonyms to sneak into detective fiction sales, and I have thoughts on the topic to inflict on you.
Overall I think it’s good (it’s certainly interesting and well-composed, and that women are massive media consumers continues to be the least shocking thing ever), but I think the author is never able to quite put her finger on why it feels so icky, and I posit that the answer is simply appropriation. I think this comes in two flavors, one more insidious than the other.
1) It is a stark example of men profiting off female pain. And not just that, but inflicting pain on women, fictionalizing it, and then making money off it! That’s disgusting.
2) More subtly, I think it appropriates the struggle female writers have had historically. It takes the need women had to hide their sex to have any chance of getting published at all* and changes it to men choosing to do so because they want to make extra money. It ignores that both historically and even today women have to hide themselves in order to participate in culture. As we know, this goes beyond books, but it still happens in books. To act as though you’ve been somehow forced to hide the crime of having a dick because fed-up women aren’t forking over enough cash is unconscionable in a world where women can be forced to flee their homes for having an opinion on media. Equating the need to make more money to the desperation to have a voice that women go through, even implicitly like these dudebros are, is so damned shitty.
*And even if writers did pretend to be men, they weren’t safe — Anne Bronte’s Tenet of Wildfell Hall caused such an uproar of ‘accusations’ that the author was actually a woman that Bronte felt the need to address it in a preface to the next edition. The critics’ evidence was that a man would never be so sympathetic to female characters. This is a thing that really happened.
That women’s voices are still seen as less legitimate in writing is something that’s been at the forefront of my mind lately. I’ve been slowly chasing down all your sci-fi/fantasy recs, and what I’ve noticed as I’ve visited bookstores, is that no one knows what to do with female fantasy writers.
First, it’s pretty demonstrable that female protagonists are not seen as legitimate, even if written by a man. The starkest example of this I’ve encountered is Daniel Handler’s work (go read them all, seriously), which is very much for adults, but always gets shuttled into YA sections since everyone knows fiction featuring a young woman protagonist is for kids but young men protagonists speak to the enduring condition of adults the world over.
This is exacerbated when you have a female writer of female characters. The bulk of contemporary fiction about young women is considered YA at this point. The idea that girls are for children has become deeply codified. But with fantasy it gets interesting because of the ways stores tend to separate fiction: SciFi and Fantasy are very much their own sections away from other fiction. So where do you put a book about a young woman that’s SciFi or Fantasy? It’s about a young girl, so it can’t be for adults. But it’s part of a genre that get separated.
The answer to this question, I’ve found, is, “No one has any fucking idea.” Seriously, no one knows. Every goddamn store does it differently, and there is no consistency. Whenever I go into a local bookstore, I have to check Fantasy, SciFi, Children’s, YA, and sometimes dumbass stuff like ‘Supernatural YA’ to be sure I’m not missing something. And sometimes there’s just no way to tell. Sometimes it varies by series (Okorafor is a big victim of this: Akata Witch? YA, almost always. Who Fears Death? Fantasy, always). And then you end up with weird stuff like Tamora Pierce’s Battle Magic, which features the brutal torture of a 12-year-old girl during wartime. Really, we can’t swing this as an adult fantasy novel?
(Pierce is interesting, because at this point she’s presumably ‘trapped’ in YA. Battle Magic and Will of the Empress were very much adult books; the latter has strong rape and female slavery themes and features one of the protagonists being wife-kidnapped, locked in a box, and trying not to have a nervous breakdown.)
Is Le Guin’s work YA or adult? Depends how popular it got. What about And I Darken, a violent historical novel about a female Vlad the Impaler? Protag too young, definitely YA. Seventh Bride, a story about a woman being kidnapped, potentially raped, imprisoned, and trying to escape a life of torture? Who the fuck knows.
All of this is to say: If a man decides he wants to write in a genre, he does it, and the only thing he is at the mercy of is talent (and good ol’ luck). If a woman wants to write genre fiction, she doesn’t actually get to choose. No matter what she writes about, it will likely be considered somehow inferior, and if she has the gall to write about a young woman, it definitely will be. Like JK Rowling, NK Jemisin, or KA Applegate, she can hide her Otherness and try to push through anyway, crossing her fingers that when people find out, it won’t destroy her. Like Pierce, she can write what she wants anyway, and encourage the young people she’s allowed to reach to overcome the barriers she faced. Or hey, maybe she’ll take the Mary Fucking Shelley route, use her own name, and spend motherfucking centuries having people argue that a woman could never have written a good book so her husband must actually be the author.
But yeah must be super hard for mediocre men to not be dominating the crime fiction subgenre I feel super bad for them.