February 8, 2013

Initializing

Once, a man asked me what I did for a living. I told him that I wrote stories while inwardly cringing and prepping myself for the inevitable deluge of token responses : That doesn’t make a lot of money, the world doesn’t need another writer, and my all time favorite, Oh, are you writing the next Harry Potter?

Harry Potter is, after all, the only book written within the last fifty years.

I’m sorry, that intense-face cracks me up. 

But this man did not say any of those things, for he was a different sort of creature, one of those folk who has little audience awareness and revels in it. He said to me, You know, a woman can’t write a good male character. She can’t really capture a man’s voice. She doesn’t understand where he is coming from, his feelings, his needs.

When challenged, he said this was not true of male authors. They were perfectly capable of writing a woman’s voice, not because of any grand theory of woman as a male social construction, but because women were easier to understand, and men are just better at understanding them.

I’m surprised he didn’t make a comment about my menstruation holding me back professionally.

The conversation stuck in my gut, not because I took his opinion as anything more than that, but because this man was a symptom of a larger disease in publishing: Not only when selling our work to larger audiences are we selling the words, plots, shapes and lyricism, but we are selling our identities, and we are selling a strange body that can be worked over and judged simply by the name on the cover.

J. K. Rowling originally published under Joanne Rowling, but “Bloomsbury requested her to use her initials rather than disclosing her first name. The publisher was afraid that young boys might not buy books written by a female author”.  The implication that even young boys bizarrely believe that a grown woman would not be able to understand the dream of going on an adventure, having magic powers, and being the hero of their own story is telling.

Nora Roberts, prolific romance author who had already built a large audience, changed her penname to J.D. Robb to write science-fiction thrillers, perhaps because someone might mistakenly pick it up thinking it was a romance and be disappointed, perhaps  because once you’re in a writing niche you’re stuck (The Casual Vacancy was all right, Rowling, but when is your next YA novel coming out?), but more than likely it is because romance is traditionally for women, and science-fiction remains, with some notable exceptions, male-dominated.

Pictured: Not a man.

This is not limited to women forced to change their names to fit a certain audience. Male romance authors endure the same type of stigma when writing in an audience that their body was not constructed for. Leigh Greenwood wrote 30 novels before finally revealing himself as Harold Lowry, “much to the surprise of his reader”.  M.L. Buchman, another male writer hiding his gender for his audience, “also uses his initials for fear of pushing away female readers who might be reluctant to trust a male romance writer. He adds, “I do like using my initials as so many women have done over the years to protect themselves in our society. It feels appropriately ironic.”

M.L. Buchman is hardly George Eliot, but the same fear drives, if not the author, then certainly the publisher. It’s a business, and as much as literary writers and artists like to be above the bottom line, we still want to sell our products to as many people as are willing to read them, and part of that means that we sell ourselves along with our words.

Still not a man.

Lest we think I am at all above this (of course not, I am very short, and rarely above anything) I too make wild assumptions about writers. Like in any beginning workshop, I assume, if not explicitly told, that the main character and the writer share certain similarities. While I never assumed that C. S. Lewis was a talking lion nor that J.R. R. Tolkien was angering the budding community of Hobbits by telling their stories through his tall, hairless-footed voice, I did believe, for the longest time, that one of my favorite authors, A.M. Holmes, was a man.

It was too obvious of a mistake on my part. I was a teenager and had picked up the book because I was going through a Lewis Carroll phase and thought it would be a fictional retelling of Alice going on more adventures. Woah, that’s not what The End of Alice was about at all, but I was thrilled, excited and stunned that anyone, much less a woman (as we are such dainty things) would write so unrepentantly about the sexual abuse of a child, and so honestly about the dark whimsy of an unrepentant mind.

Later, when I taught Creative Writing for the first time, I assigned Holmes, Lolita, Anne Sexton’s Transformations and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, not realizing until after my students had purchased the books that all of them contained some element of pedophilia. Feeling kind of bad, I brought them “Sorry I potentially traumatized you” cupcakes, which Kroger happened to sell. Only one student told me he was disgusted by the whole thing, and I was tempted to buy him a cake but Kroger didn’t sell a “Sorry for awkwardly making you think pedophilia is the only thing writers are on about”.

Nothing quite says “I’m sorry” quite like whatever the hell is going on here. Seriously, are those strawberries? Mutant fruit? Are those noodles? 

I published a few stories under my full name, but after awhile I used my initials instead. I don’t write like Munro – the farthest thing – and I wonder if my name, my gender and my perceived body could potentially turn people away if they engage in the tired but persistent belief that women belong in certain spaces, and deserve to think certain thoughts. Are women delegated to a role where we must wait for others to go on adventures and return to tell us, or disguise our anger as the righteous indignation of a man, or wish for a catharsis that can only be played out in a masquerade? I hope not, but hope necessitates quite a bit of uncertainly, and it is there that I write.

 

About Alison Balaskovits

A. A. Balaskovits is a Ph.D. student in Fiction at the University of Missouri and the curator of the Literature on Lockdown series for The Missouri Review. You can follow her on twitter @aabalaskovits or at aabalaskovits.com

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