Several weeks ago, Catherine Nichols wrote an essay for Jezebel describing her experience submitting a novel with a male vs female name (you can read the essay here: http://jezebel.com/homme-de-plume-what-i-learned-sending-my-novel-out-und-1720637627). It was fascinating to me, and a bit baffling. Her Male nomme de plume, George, received 8 ½ times more responses than the same book did under her own name.
I was surprised at the results reported in Ms. Nichols’s essay because, for the life of me, I could not recall looking at an author’s sex as a help or a hindrance, except in certain very specific circumstances—some cozy mysteries, some parenting nonfiction, erotica from a woman’s perspective—but in each of these cases I would have been more leery of a man’s name on the query than a woman’s. (And to be sure, I’ve had a devil of a time selling some rights to a mystery, written by a man, in the first person perspective of a woman.) I currently have 47 clients, 26 of whom are women and 21 of whom are men. I represent books encompassing many genres, both fiction and nonfiction (though 75 % fiction), and with a bit of a bias toward adult books vs children’s (30 out of 47 are adult book authors). I looked through my list for trends, tendencies…and found none. Not at all. I look at background, certainly, particularly for historical fiction and all nonfiction. But I have twice as many female Ph.Ds (4) as male (2), and the same number of women writing thrillers as men.
So what is it? I mean, I realize I am particularly interested in signing, for example, female thriller and mystery writers because the editors I talk to tell me they are interested in the next big female-driven thriller or police procedural. But I just. Don’t. Think. About. It. (At least not much.)
I decided to speak to some folks in the industry and had several conversations about this after I read the essay. The two most notable were with one male editor from a major publisher, the other with my colleague Danielle, who is the first reader on many of the submissions that come to me.
The editor said that the thing that the article did for him was to make him assess the books he’d taken on, and what he found was that some of his “project” books, which he’d really had to fight for and which at times were books he’d spent quite a bit of time nurturing, were in fact predominantly by men. He said as well that there were many times he felt (purely anecdotally, and speaking only for himself and not making generalizations!) that it was easier to squeak a book through Ed Board if it weren’t obvious, if it were by a guy. He wasn’t sure why, and the idea disturbed him tremendously. And he said that it made him want to think carefully about whether this is true the next time he brought something up.
My conversation with Danielle really dug through a lot of layers. Because ultimately, I think what the author of the essay was doing, and indeed what so much analysis of books and authors is ultimately about, is dismissing genre fiction—and indeed “commercial” fiction—which is ALL predominantly read by women, and lonely thinking about “literary fiction”—in other words the kinds of books that men read too. Of course I have more female clients than male, and don’t think about the author’s sex, she said; you represent mostly genre fiction. Crime, YA, women’s commercial fiction, parenting nonfiction. (To be fair to myself, in the literary fiction I represent, I have an equal number of male and female clients, but the point is well-taken since it’s only a few books.)
So really, Danielle pointed out, the sexism that Nichols encountered had as much to do with her audience as with her name. And there are certainly all kinds of statistics to back up these findings, when you think of the percentage of Booker nominees or National Book Award long-listers any given year that are male vs female (and it’s not a question of who wins; just how many are nominated); or books on the Times year-end lists of best books, or are reviewed in any given year. All overwhelmingly male (and white, for that matter).
But why is THAT? Is it that any smart novel written by a woman is automatically placed as “commercial women’s fiction” while a smart novel by a man is considered “literary?” Is it that women who write about domestic dramas are taken less seriously than men who write about Tortured Men?
I realize these are lots of questions that get to the very core of literature and generations of reading and writing and publishing habits (I’d be interested in hearing what a female editor of literary fiction thinks, and whether she has thought this way before. Has the ascendance of women to higher levels within publishing houses caused any change? Nichols would say not.) . It left the male editor rather depressed and surprised.
Unfortunately to Danielle, it was obvious.
To me, it might explain a bit why some of my books failed to Pass Ed Board (sometimes multiple times). It won’t make me change who I take and why I take it. I go to work each day looking for the best possible book, regardless of genre, regardless of who the author may be. The bar is high regardless.
It seems, though, in our industry, that if you are a woman you have to jump that much higher.