On Female Pseudonyms and the Co-Opting of Silence

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.

Image result for sad middle finger gif

38 Comments

  1. Daniel says:

    Hmm. That is a very interesting perspective htat I don’t think many consider. Critics love to talk about how the content of books react to readers; but few consider how they’re sold to readers.

    Now I’m curious,  how do online retailers categorize female protagonist/writer books?




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  2. Roarke says:

    This is making me wonder where the Female Protagonist tag on Steam sits in the grand scheme. One of the interesting things about being friends with Act on Steam is that I’m flooded with 1. her reviews (seriously Act, I can scroll down my Store page for almost a minute and see nothing but your writing) and 2. tags that seem blatantly aimed at women. I am pretty sure I didn’t have that before; I only had (and still have) a flood of Adult VNs offered to me. Steam will never rest until I buy one.




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    1. Act says:

      (seriously Act, I can scroll down my Store page for almost a minute and see nothing but your writing)

      Step 2: ???

      Step 3: Profit

      2. tags that seem blatantly aimed at women. I am pretty sure I didn’t have that before; I only had (and still have) a flood of Adult VNs offered to me. Steam will never rest until I buy one.

      That’s interesting. Steam has my tags so down to a T that I never considered it takes factors other than your own purchases into account. (Seriously every rec I get is “Story Rich; Female Protagonist; RPG; Indie” I GET IT STEAM YOU HAVE AN ALGORITHM gosh.)

      But yes I also get swamped with porn VN recs.

      edit: It also aggressively recs me things I have on other services. I wish I could indicate that I already own PS:T, BG, and Steins;Gate so Steam would calm the fuck down about how up my alley they are.




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      1. Roarke says:

        Steam knows about your great work with Fate and wonders if you’ll do the same for the whole industry.

        Yeah, I get mostly the same tags, in addition to all the tags I get for having wide appetites. Been sucked into Rimworld lately; it’s so good. A colony simulator on the premise that humanity became super advanced and sent out sleeper ships to populate outer worlds, but they’re so far apart that they end up developing mostly on their own.




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        1. Act says:

          Ahh I saw you playing Rimworld and was going to ask, it keeps popping up during sales and sounds like something I’d love but I can’t get over how ugly it is for the price.




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          1. Roarke says:

            I wasn’t sure if I should rec it, but I can say that since it’s still in Alpha, you can absolutely put it off with no fear. It should only get better.

            It’s not going to get any prettier, probably. The game’s philosophy is a familiar one: sacrifice looks for depth.

            edit: You should, however, play Darkest Dungeon. Beautiful, atmospheric, Lovecraftian in the best sense, and narrated by the dude that does Poe/Lovecraft audiobooks. I have made this exact spiel before, I am sure.




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            1. Act says:

              The game’s philosophy is a familiar one: sacrifice looks for depth.

              But I want boooooth.

              (ARK spoiled me so much.)




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            2. Roarke says:

              I know, I know. It hurts to compromise. Rimworld is hilariously fun though. It’s the kind of game that spawns a hundred anecdotes among players.

              Speaking of which, what was with all the bots linking to, I think porn sites? Yesterday night.




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            3. Act says:

              RE: bots: That’s weird, someone else must have cleaned it up. That would explain why I checked the spam queue this morning and saw nothing on the Telepath post.




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            4. Roarke says:

              The bots were going hard last night. But yeah I’ve not been playing much besides Rimworld; I have actually been trying to read again. After your rec, I thought I was forgetting something, and then I remembered to pick up Infinite Jest, which you had Mr. Act rec a million years ago.




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      2. Daniel says:

        Can I add you on Steam Act?




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        1. Act says:

          Of course! My handle is actonthat, though I believe my display name is just Act. If you can leave a note when adding (I don’t remember if you can?) just let me know you’re from DQ.




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          1. Daniel says:

            Thanks. I get a lot of hits when I search ‘act’, and nothing when I search ‘actonthat’. How can I tell which one is you?




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            1. Act says:

              Well my profile pics is Archer xD

              If that doesn’t help shoot me a PM and I’ll give you my email, as I think you can search that way.




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            2. Daniel says:

              Found you! I think you can figure out that it’s me based on the timing, haha




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      3. illhousen says:

        It also aggressively recs me things I have on other services. I wish I could indicate that I already own PS:T, BG, and Steins;Gate so Steam would calm the fuck down about how up my alley they are.

        On your rec list, you can mark them as “not interested.” There is a button somewhere under under the trailer panel. Not sure if it works for other ads, though.




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    2. CrazyEd says:
      Sometimes I see tags like that while scrolling through the piles of garbage on AOOO, and I feel the same way. A lot of the time, it seems like the fics that have tags like that are the fics which are selling themselves on just that (sometimes quite literally, as the fics will sometimes omit any summary at all, and have nothing but a perhaps character tag or two and what minority it’s representing). It kind of reminds me of things like Christian media, where you’ll buy it because it’s Christian and you’re Christian, regardless of the quality.

      That’s one of the two major reasons why, when I want to read something with a female protagonist, I look in the character tag of a specific female character (the other being that “Female protagonist” gives you works from ANY source material tagged with that tag because AOOO only allows filtering with one tag, which isn’t remotely helpful if I want to read anything more specific than “a work with a female protagonist”). It sucks having to search for female protagonist stories with critical reading of summaries like a savage instead of just hitting the button that says GIVE ME FICTION WTIH FEMALE PROTAGONISTS, especially when I can hit the GIVE ME FICTION WHERE HARRY POTTER IS REINCARNATED INTO WESTEROS button and that one works perfectly fine.

      Oh, but that reminds me, there’s this new show on Freeform called “The Bold Type” I’ve been meaning to mention on this site (because I am an old man who still watches TV on a TV with a box and a cable and commercials for things I’m not already interested in and everything). I’d tell you what it’s about, but I don’t know. I haven’t seen any of it. I only saw about three different commercials for it, all of which had a lot of quotes from reviewers talking about how feminist and empowering and modern it is. But I couldn’t tell what it was actually about. I was actually considering watching it just to see what it was about. It seems like something Act or Farla might have something insightful to say about it or something, I dunno.

      That said, it actually didn’t look like it would be a lazy show with nothing going for it besides how feminist it is, so who knows maybe I’ll watch an episode and it’ll turn out that I love it. It’s not like I’m busy watching anything else on TV right now (except Game of Thrones S7, and it can’t be worse than that).




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    3. illhousen says:

      Oh, you get porn VNs too? I’ve noticed their influx in my recs after starting playing Higurashi. I guess it’s inevitable with the tags algorithm. VN + anime = porn, according to Steam.

      I’ve gor a really weird rec about, like, a Scarface setup but in high school or something. Nearly bought it just for the WTF factor.




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      1. Roarke says:

        Steam won’t rest until I’ve played the Grisaia series, and at this point I’m not 100% sure I won’t.

        Also I had a friend rec a VN called Chrono Clock or something, which I may actually try out and report back on.




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        1. illhousen says:

          Unbeknownst to his fellow classmates, Rei Sawatari has spent his years putting together a list of cute girls.One after another, he would confess to these girls to gauge their interest in him, before using the power of his pocket watch to turn back time.
          An ingenious strategy that is virtually free of risk.

          …Good luck, you’ll need it.




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          1. Act says:

            I… I’ve never seen a VN with jiggle physics before…




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            1. Roarke says:

              So I uh wanted to go into it blind, but thanks. I wasn’t even sure I had the name right, haha.

              Goddamn, this first impression.




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            2. illhousen says:

              Well, my quote is from the summary, and I think Act’s comment is on the trailer, so it’s not something creators wanted to hide or surprise you with.

              The name is actually ChronoClock, no spaces, because what we really need is DragonRaid anime porn.

              It’s also a funny name given that it’s literally Time Clock. That sure is a useful clarification.




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            3. Act says:

              All I could think was, “What other kinds of clocks are there?”




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            4. Roarke says:

              They probably wanted to crib on the success of Chrono Trigger series a bit, since my fingers wanted to type Chrono Cross. And like I said, I knew literally nothing, and now I know there’s jiggle physics and the premise itself is bottom-feeder-cowardice.




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            5. illhousen says:

              What other kinds of clocks are there?

              Broken ones.




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            6. Act says:

              But even those are right twice a day!




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            7. Nerem says:
              Pretty sure NekoPara has jiggle physics.

               

              The fact that I’m unsure is funny considering I’m one of the people who worked on the games for the publisher.




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        2. CrazyEd says:
          I’d actually suggest playing at least the first Grisaia game. I highly doubt you’ll like it, but you’re doing yourself a disservice by not seeing it firsthand. It’s… it’s something. It’s like if the main character of Full Metal Panic went to eroge school. And it is glorious(ly bad).

          It’s worth it just to see the main character of a harem series walk in on a girl when she’s topless (because before he moved into her dorm room, the girl basically used it as a walk-in closet, and was changing), and say to her “Look, this isn’t my fault, so I’m not going to act as if it is. You’re free to be topless here all you want, but I swear to god if you touch the bottle of green tea that’s in my fridge, God, Buddha, and Kamen Rider put together couldn’t save you.”

          Dude is really fucking serious when it comes to his green tea. And, later on, he teaches the imoutobait character how to shoot a hot pink anti-materiel rifle.

          But I’m a glutton for things that are so terribly horrible they wrap around to being enjoyable, so take that as you will.




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  3. Valkíria says:
    You know, I don’t usually post, but you mentioned Handler, and I wanted to know if you mean the books he published under his name, or under Lemony Snicket. I am a big fan of a series of unfortunate events, but haven’t read Handler’s work not related to that, mostly because they are not available in my country, shipping them from overseas would cost roughly my immortal soul, and it feels bad to pirate books of authors I actually like. With that said, I believe I would categorize a series of unfortunate events as YA, mostly because I read them as a child, and while re-reading later showed me more depth to it than I first realized, it still feels like the kind of book apropriate for younger audiences.

    Also, for anyone reading this, read the books before watching the series on netflix, if ever. The series does a great disservice to Violet’s character.




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    1. Act says:

      I meant his work under his own name; I’ve actually never read his work as Snicket. I hugely rec We Are Pirates and The Basic Eight (though big sexual assault TW on the second one), and Why We Broke Up was very cute.




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  4. illhousen says:

    This is a good and insightful post, but I feel that it lacks John Green, Savior of the YA hate.

    Also,

    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.

    …It’s actually a thing?

    *looks up Wikipedia* Huh, so it is. At least the consensus seems to be that her husband was an editor and just did the job of an editor?




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    1. Act says:

      …It’s actually a thing?

      You have no idea.

      At least the consensus seems to be that her husband was an editor and just did the job of an editor?

      This is what actually happened, yes, he edited and wrote a preface because they were living in the middle of the woods and there was no one else to do it, likely.

      I highly rec Romantic Outlaws, a dual biography of Mary Wollstoencraft and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.




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      1. illhousen says:

        John Lauritsen debunks the myth that Frankenstein was written by a teenaged girl

        Ffffffffff.

        Great way to present your book, Jesus fuck.

        Male love is a central theme of rankenstein.

        Amusing typo, that, and right in the summary. Rankenstein has a nice ring to it. A monster born out of sexism and conspiracy theorism.




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        1. Act says:

          But illhousen, she’s so “weak and sentimental,” how could she write such a book without having the vapors???

          I can’t stop giggling at ‘Rankenstein.’




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          1. illhousen says:

            I’m pretty sure there is some kind of pun I could make about pulling the rank, but I have trouble forming coherent sentenses.

            The reviews are also worth checking out in that they’re likely to give you hysteria (by which I mean, you may become irritated with people writing them and snippy, which is a sure sign of mental illness).

            As an independent scholar, Lauritsen is beholden to no one.

            Well, there is his problem, glad we cleared that up.

            At least that’s one person who isn’t devaluing your degree, but don’t worry, he has people for that:

            This book, which is a hybrid of mystery story, polemic and paean to poetic beauty, shows just how boring literary criticism has become over the past 40 years. I haven’t been this  exhilarated by a book about literature since I devoured Leslie Fiedler’s iconoclastic essays in college back in the 1960s. All that cr*ppy
            poststructuralism that poured out of  universities for so long pretended to challenge power but was itself just the time-serving
            piety of a status-conscious new establishment. Lauritsen’s book shows what true sedition and transgression are all about.

            Academic discourse is useless, true transgression comes in the form of denying that a woman without formal education (even if she was a daughter of two philosophers) could write a good book, got it.

            (On unrelated note, Wollstonecraft is an awesome name that I would expect to find in Nasuverse.)




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            1. illhousen says:

              There was a huge lightning splitting the sky right across my window when I clicked “post.” I’m going to take it as a sign that I’m right and also possibly that Mary is going to raise from her grave sometime soon.




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            2. This book, which is a hybrid of mystery story, polemic and paean to poetic beauty, shows just how boring literary criticism has become over the past 40 years. I haven’t been this  exhilarated by a book about literature since I devoured Leslie Fiedler’s iconoclastic essays in college back in the 1960s. All that cr*ppy
              poststructuralism that poured out of  universities for so long pretended to challenge power but was itself just the time-serving
              piety of a status-conscious new establishment. Lauritsen’s book shows what true sedition and transgression are all about.

              The writer of this paragraph is in severe need of a maiming from a collapsing shelf full of thesauri, regardless of the meaning behind this vocabular vacuousity.




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