7.11.2013

A Woman Writing in a Man's World

QUICK! Without consulting Wikipedia, Amazon, or any other helpful website, name all of the really famous female horror/fantasy/sci-fi authors you can think of. I'm not talking about indies or mid-listers you just like personally because they were recommended to you by a friend, or because you're one of those rare types that intentionally seeks out female authors so you can feel like you've "discovered" someone. I'm talking about the ones who have broken through into the mainstream, who can be lined up right alongside the likes of Stephen King or Neil Gaiman or Arthur C. Clarke.

If you listed Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K. LeGuin, Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson, Anne Rice, J.K. Rowling, and Stephenie Meyer, you pretty much covered all the bases. A list on Forbes of the 10 most powerful female authors has Meyer and Rowling representing the speculative fiction category. But when you think about it, their fare is pretty light. Rowling's Potter books, as lovely as they are, are still children's books. And Meyer's Twilight series is romance first, vampires second. Where is the female equivalent of Isaac Asimov?

Where is the monumentally bestselling woman who can give George Orwell a run for his money in the dystopian household name department? Margaret Atwood, probably, but is she mainstream? In other words, would you find her books in a Target?

Mmmmmm... no.

The other authors on the Forbes list--Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Danielle Steele, Alice Walker--generally write in literature or romance genres. They dine with the likes of Oprah and her club of literary elites. If you think of the most famous female authors of all time (Austen, Woolf, Bronte, Alcott), you'll notice one glaring trend: they all died at least a century ago. And none of them wrote horror, fantasy, or science fiction. Though I find it a point of pride that it was a woman (Mary Shelley) who wrote what is considered the first horror novel (Frankenstein), so at least there is that. Crime and suspense are tough genres for women to break into as well. Oh they can. Just ask Gillian Flynn how it's all working out for her right about now, but generally women writing stories about people being killed and doing bad things are put into the thriller or mystery categories. Or sometimes even horror, because horror is still by and large treated as a marginal/pulp genre that only fringe readers like. This is why so many authors, like Stephen King, have fought against the horror label. Because in the commercial marketplace, it's anathema. It's like saying: "Only weirdos read my stuff."

It's not friendly, but it's true. But even then... name me some true female horror authors. Famous ones like King and Koontz and Barker and Poe and fucking Lovecraft.

Do you hear crickets? Yeah. I already mentioned Mary Shelley, so shut up. She's a fucking pile of dust in a box now. Give me one that is breathing RIGHT NOW.

Like I said, crickets. Even with this website I found that lists the 20 Greatest Horror Authors: NOT ONE FUCKING WOMAN.

That isn't to say that there aren't women writing these things. On the contrary, there are a LOT of women doing work, great work, in these genres. I know a number of them personally. But in the mainstream, they are sadly not mentioned or remembered alongside the "greats" (i.e. the ones with penises).

It seems that women, as a rule, get famous for writing stories that lots of women want to read. Nora Roberts (who has written crime/sci-fi under the gender-neutral name J.D. Robb) and Janet Evanovich and Danielle Steele and Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and the woman who wrote The Help can attest to this. Men, however, can get famous for writing stories that men AND women want to read. Which is another way of saying... MEN as a whole (don't start sending me hate mail saying that you're a man and you read women authors... a trend is a trend, and it's the rock to your scissors) don't seem to care much for female authors. And as much as we love the science fiction achievements of Ms. LeGuin, will that name really ever be synonymous with Clarke/Asimov/Heinlein? Names that, even if you're not a fan of the genre, you've probably heard?

No, it will not. Not really. Because the realms of strange worlds and future civilizations are generally for men to explore.

I'm not kvetching too heavily over this, I guess, and I'm not trying to sound like a man hater. In fact, a quick glance at my male author-dominated bookshelf would have me looking like a hypocrite in no time flat (but do I really have much of a choice if I'm reading mainstream speculative fiction authors?) It all just makes me wonder if seeing a woman's name on the cover of something in a speculative genre is a liability in building a male audience. Do men really see these titles and think "Oh, it's probably like a soap opera with lame emotional and touchy feely stuff in it" and then move on to the manly man sounding name on the other shelf?

Will people buy my books THE LAST SUPPER (sci-fi) or STRINGS (suspense/crime) when they come out if they see my not overly feminine but still obviously female name on it? Women might, but would men? Am I being taken seriously in my own genre? These things keep me up at night.

Seriously, I should have been in bed an hour ago.

I'm not the only one who feels this way, who wonders if her "nomme de femme" might be a factor in suppressing her book sales and also wonders what would happen if they put a man's name on all those covers. Some of these women are writing under male pseudonyms already. Like women authors of the 19th Century who knew for a fact that the publishing industry deck was stacked against them and that men would never read the work of a female author.

This makes me sad because it might still be necessary. It also has me trying to think of a good dude pen name for myself. Because while there are a lot of female authors dominating the charts out there in a lot of great categories of fiction, I think we're lying to ourselves if we say that it's equal across the board. I've long accepted that as a woman writing in "manly genres", the only domain in which I've ever felt creatively comfortable to be honest (even though I do feel like there is a feminine edge to most of my work) I will very likely never "break through." At least not with this name. I'm grateful to all my male fans. I'm grateful that my son, at 10-years-old, doesn't mind at all that the author is a woman or that girls are the main characters in the stories he reads. I hope people like this breed and multiply in greater numbers, if only so I can  stop wondering if my female name is holding me back.

And if you're a male author and you're about to jump down to the comments and tell me how you can't break into the YA or romance or erotica genres because they're so dominated by female authors, welcome to a very contemporary problem. Women have been trying to break into mainstream fiction since it was invented. But hey, at least there are a bajillion other genres you can write in where this won't really be a problem for you. Meanwhile, I guess if I want to be famous, I can change my name to Alan. Or I can write about bondage sex fantasies with misogynistic corporate types.