In the Bitchery HQ Slack this week, Amanda shared this link to the ever-outstanding Kelly Faircloth on Jezebel:
Men Are Apparently Adopting Ambiguous Pen Names to Sell Psychological Thrillers to Women
From Kelly’s write-up:
“…there is a huge market demand for psychological “Girl Who” thrillers, often featuring dead or missing women, written largely by women for female audiences. And the guys—and their publishers—want in.
Her source, a Wall Street Journal article with a truly cringetastic headline:
These Male Authors Don’t Mind if You Think They’re Women
Well, thank heavens, because you know I was worried about it.
The WSJ article is behind a paywall, but the salient details are also on The Guardian:
Riley Sager is a debut author whose book, Final Girls, has received the ultimate endorsement. “If you liked Gone Girl, you’ll love this,” Stephen King has said. But unlike Gone Girl, Girl on a Train, The Girls, Luckiest Girl Alive and others, Final Girls is written by a man – Todd Ritter. This detail is missing from Riley Sager’s website which, as the Wall Street Journal has pointed out, refers to the author only by name and without any gender-disclosing pronouns or photographs. (His Twitter avatar is Jamie Lee Curtis.)
Ritter is not the first man to deploy a gender-neutral pen name. JP Delaney (real name Tony Strong) is author of The Girl Before, SK Tremayne (Sean Thomas) wrote The Ice Twins and next year, The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn (AKA Daniel Mallory) is published. Before all of these was SJ (AKA Steve) Watson, the author of 2011’s Before I Go to Sleep.
“Literally, every time I appear in print or public,” Watson says, someone asks about why he uses initials. It was his publisher’s decision to avoid an author photo and to render his biography non-gendered. He has never hidden, but when Before I Go to Sleep went on submission, editors emailed his agent and asked, “What is she like?” Watson found the mistake flattering.
Right, because with profit, they’re “okay” with you mistaking them for women.
I’m so relieved.
Never mind the incredible violence faced by, you know, actual transgender individuals.
Wow, did that entire reading experience leave me with side eye and a frown. There’s already plenty of barriers to entry within publishing if you’re not a white dude, so this was the news equivalent of rubbing a cat backwards from the tail to the shoulders.
This part of the WSJ article particularly rubbed Amanda the wrong way, as it did Kelly Faircloth. She wrote at Jezebel:
One of the authors featured has gone so far as to try on a bra so he didn’t make any obvious mistakes that might throw female readers out of the story. Wonder if he also gets the infuriating emails or the creepy DMs or the generally patronizing bullshit?
…Nevertheless, if only being a woman in, say, serious nonfiction or literary fiction were as straightforward as publishing under the name Steve.
Well, thank God the bra question was addressed.
Given that Elyse and Amanda both love thrillers, especially those that focus on women, they had a few things to say about this discovery.
Amanda: Since I just got Final Girls, I’m kind of bummed about this, Elyse.
Elyse: Dudes ruin everything.
Amanda: It’s weird how my excitement for the book just got sapped out of my body.
RedHeadedGirl: It’s one thing when women are exploring the things that make the world unsafe for us.
It a whole other thing when it’s men and since they are, you know, one of those things, it feels exploitative.
WHY ARE DUDES.
Sarah: Because Money.
Elyse: I guess I have two books to donate.
I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers written by men, and I have no issue with that. I think the reason this is squicky for me is that so many of the “Girl” mysteries deal with deep female POV, and that POV is often dealing with themes like toxic masculinity and gaslighting by men.
Sarah: The whole picking another name thing seems a lot like gaslighting.
Elyse: Yes. I have written about why I really love this new trend of female driven psychological thrillers. It’s reclaiming a genre that commodifies violence (often sexual) against women. It’s about female rage and about reclaiming our bodies. For me the genre works because it subverts the traditional narrative in a genre dominated by men.
Sarah: It’s a familiar feeling. An unpleasant one.
Amanda: Going back to RHG’s comment about women exploring things that make them feel unsafe, I’m skeptical of a man being able to accurately write a woman’s experience.
I’m not saying it can’t be done, but (as an example from the WSJ article) how is trying on a bra really going to get to the heart of the experience of living as a woman and having to factor in your own safety to your daily routine?
It all just feels like a gimmick to me and leaves a bad taste in my mouth, given the amount of violence that often occurs against women at the hands of men.
Sarah: And…cue the sound of us all nodding and grimacing as one.
I’ve been pondering this for the better part of a day, wondering if my reaction is outsized or uneven. For example, JK Rowling adopted the Galbraith pseudonym to write without the expectation and pressure that came with the Rowling surname on the cover. I get it.
These individuals masking their gender to sell thrillers, as RHG pointed out, feels exploitative, not because of the pseudonym, but because of the pseudonym and the subject matter of the genre – not to mention the politics of gender identity – in the exploitation and insecurity inherent in identifying as female.
That said, it is entirely possible that I’m cranky and there are much better uses for my ire and snarly energy.
What about you? Are you a thriller fan? What do you think? What’s your reaction?
Comments are Closed
That’s so what we need. Men pretending to be female authors so they can mansplain the visceral and emotive reactions experienced by a woman in physical and psychological danger. Thank goodness he tried on a bra, because otherwise he’d be unqualified. /eyeroll/
I don’t read thrillers (I’m a card carrying member of bad decisions book club, and scary books + bdbc = peak anxiety), but have inevitably noticed the preponderance of “Girl Who” books in the genre. I love when women retake genres and subjects that society might think we would wish to avoid (also a card carrying murderino here, SSDGM), but the explosion of “Girl” titled books has always rubbed me the wrong way. Same thing with “[Insert title or profession here]’s daughter/wife/sister/grandma” titled books. They scream “THIS IS A BOOK FOR LADIES!!!” to me, which feels icky. Like the publisher/author/entire book industry thinks I’m too stupid to figure out what book i want to read without a gender marker in the title.
Add to this squick the emergence of men posing as female authors, and it’s a whole lot of NOPE for me. Exploitive and Gimmicky– good words.
Reminds me of how cautious I have to be when encountering “native narratives.” I’m Maliseet and sometimes want to read a book (especially one that’s not super depressing) about indigenous peoples, but it’s common (and always has been common) for some white guy to craft a “verb + noun” surname and try to profit off the “exotic,” “noble savage.”
I’m all for researching an author or book before reading, but usually I do it to further my enjoyment, not to protect myself from d-bags trying to use me and people like me for financial gain. It’s all just so exhausting and honestly isn’t that the EXACT OPPOSITE of what bookreading is supposed be?
I hate thrillers, for complicated reasons, although I’m aware that many people like them. What makes this particularly annoying to me is hat the thriller genre is already dominated by men. Although I do wonder if it will become a Thing to use only initials in every author and genre, just so you can do without reader expectations of gender? Because that would be kind of awesome. I read a lot of SF/Fantasy which is already a bit of a sausage factory, and I always check the voice by opening a book and randomly reading passages. Some male authors have a very identifiable voice and it’s like ok, no. This is not how women think or speak
I have read 1 book by a male author(other than those required by school curriculum) in the past eight years.
Why? Because I took a vow while working at a public library as a teenager that until the top 10 selling books were written by women – I wasn’t reading any books by men. This was because men NEVER checked out books by women authors – I mean in in the 2 years I worked at the library I NEVER waited on a man who checked out a work of fiction written by a woman. And it seems like the best seller lists continues to show this bias as at most the may be 2 women authors in the top 10.
I routinely investigate authors with androgynous names to make sure it is not a male author. What makes it slightly harder now is same sex marriages – can no longer assume an author named Jamie who is married yo Bull is a woman.
I’m hoping before I die that men will become more enlightened about their reading choices so I can read some of the great books by male authors I have missed out on during my boycott.
It was 38 years not 8 years since my boycott started – dang speech to text.
Well, nothing says, “what it feels like to be a woman” like trying on a bra. Or maybe using a tampon. That would have been better, probably.
Look, there are likely men who can pull off a deep-dive in a female POV for a thriller, but it requires massive, intensive research. Not a f***** bra experience, and not “I live with a woman” or “I have a sister” or whatever other surface-y excuse might be trotted out. I wouldn’t want to say this is a *never* proposition either, and since I haven’t read the book, I can’t say if *this* author pulled it off (I hope you’ll tell us if you do end up reading it), but the whole idea of actively masking his identity, and the hand-wavey bra comment, make me deeply, deeply skeptical.
If a male author does a masterful job of inhabiting a female PT character–and nailing the psychological overlay of women’s experiences–why hide it? You’d think it would be brag-worthy.
Wow. I had just put Final Girls on hold at the library last week. I will be cancelling that.
I haven’t read any of the books involved (except Gone Girl and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo book), plus I get all my books from the library, so my contribution to this topic is pretty irrelevant. For whatever it’s worth, I find the reduction to a men v women binary every bit as tiresome as exploitative publishing companies, possibly more so. If men want to write romance, great; if women are reluctant to even try a romance written by a man, of course we’ll wind up seeing more pseudonyms. And if the books suck, condemn them on a more solid basis than the author’s gender.
Frankly, men finally attempting to appeal to the female market, and publishers actually responding to the fact that most book buyers are female – this strikes me as good news. If all authors used gender neutral names or initials, and eschewed photos, I tend to think that would be an advantage.
*recoils so fast he doesn’t know what to say*
Being a mostly closeted trans person, my writing is one of the very few places I feel safe expressing my gender identity. I…can’t put my emotions into words right now, just that I feel deeply uncomfortable (and very angry) with male authors pretending to be female.
And on the subject of bras, my pet peeve is when our hero pushes the heroine’s *up* to get at her boobs. Either she’s wearing an ill-fitting bra, or that just hurt like hell. Is that only annoying to me?
This is not a thing trying a bra on is going to tell a man, of course, but (as far as I can tell) it’s women who have written all the scenes I’ve read…
I JUST reviewed Final Girls, and I didn’t like it in spite of also really loving the female-driven thrillers thing lately. And the reason I didn’t like it was because the main character felt really unresolved–the things she thinks and the things she feels and the things she does seem to have no relation to each other. And I don’t mean to denigrate male authors (no, really), but this really explains it to me. This is what a guy thinks a final girl feels like. UGH.
He tried on a bra? Pfffffft. Everybody knows that to TRULY understand the female experience, he has to wear high heels for a minimum of ten steps.
There was a kerfuffle on Twitter the other day where a man complained his date took a picture of his license plate and sent it to her friend before she got in the car with him. Men were complaining it was insulting, could be a setup for a robbery, and that if they did that to a woman, they’d be called stalkers. Totally equivalent to a woman’s fears of being abducted, raped, murdered, and never having her body found to point the police toward the perpetrator, right?
Point being, they do not naturally understand. Some understand when it’s explained to them often enough. And some will insist with their dying breath that their hurt feelings at being lumped in with “bad men” are just as emotionally devastating as the threat of physical harm women live with every day of their lives. (And it’s not groundless fear, either! There are scientific studies! Law enforcement statistics out the wazoo! Yet many men like to pretend it’s just one dude they don’t know doing all the bad deeds.)
WHY ARE DUDES, indeed.
Anyone who would let words to the effect of “I tried on a bra so I wouldn’t make any obvious mistakes that would throw women out of the story” pass through his lips must think the only difference between men and women is boobs. (And periods, but he would never write about anything so GROSS while he’s writing about violence against women.)
If I already had the book, I’d accept the “obvious mistakes that would throw women out of the story” challenge and review it as such. With GIFs, as appropriate.
@kkw: My bra fits perfectly, snug enough to stay in place without cutting into my skin, and there’s more than enough stretch in the band to clear breasts several times the size of mine with an upward removal.
Besides, done properly, his hand is between skin and bra, so any discomfort belongs to him.
DISCLAIMER: Bras vary. Boobs vary. I am only speaking from personal experience when I say the up-and-off is easy peasy under certain environmental conditions.
Going a step further with JK Rowling, I had heard that her publishers asked her to use initials instead of her name Joanna because they were afraid boys wouldn’t want to read Harry Potter, and her main character is an adolescent boy.
@Ren: I’m a little envious because if I tried I think I’d be strangled by one or both underwires. Boobs and bras do indeed vary.
@Varian: I feel badly having upset you, though I totally understand the reaction. I hope you feel safe here expressing every identity and if I can do more to help, please email me?
Maybe men think we keep our wisdom and insight in our bras? It would certainly explain the eternal male quest to remove them. They were looking for spirited intellectual debate all along.
Also fuck you, buddy, from every woman who doesn’t wear a bra because she doesn’t want to, she’s waiting for reassignment surgery, she’s had cancer, or she can’t afford $60 for some flimsy wire and nylon. What will he have to try on to get into those women’s heads?
Normally I would file this under “patriarchal bullshit” and move along, but it’s vexing to read about men eagerly shouting over women every chance they get. Life is not a zero-sum game, but the publishing industry can be, and like almost every other institution, it’s already skewed in favor of men. It would be wonderful for men to seek out and uplift great female authors instead of trying to simultaneously co-opt and silence them. I’m tired of knowing I will always have to yell to be heard.
Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them. And in the end, isn’t that almost always the subject of these thrillers?
I just read Final Girls. It was enjoyable, but pretty obvious that a guy wrote it (example: he was really fascinated by the fact that heterosexual intercourse involves the man being *inside* the woman. So many references to the fact that someone had been *inside* of the heroine. I just didn’t think a woman would be as fixated by that part of sex).
Nothing new to say that someone else on the thread hasn’t already said more eloquently than my jet-lagged brain can manage at the moment….but I had to chime in to say that this BOTHERS me, too. Ick.
I get the annoyed reactions, but I think at the end of the day you should probably stick with judging the book on its own merits. If a male author succeeds in writing a female POV, great for him. If he doesn’t, maybe disappointed reactions will push him to dip a little deeper in the empathy well. I also think it’s a bit disingenuous to say men shouldn’t write female POV or under a female/gender-neutral pen name when the vast majority of m/m romance is written by women. Yes, white men are already starting from a position of privilege, but I don’t think we want to say that authors must fully disclose their own identity. Gender, race, religion, and socio-economic advantage/disadvantage all inform writing, but they’re also very personal things that we don’t necessarily want to share or feel safe sharing, right? Should white men be subjected to a double standard, expected to only write as white men? I would say no, not when so many other authors only find their voices by writing under another identity. I think it’s fair to say that men writing these psychological thrillers that solicit a female audience under a female pseudonym is problematic, but we should not look to set a precedent where only certain people can write certain kinds of books.
Interesting. I just read “Final Girls” and really enjoyed it, and I admit that feeling “duped” by the writer’s gender representation kind of dampens my enthusiasm. That said, I’ve been replaying the book in my mind and there was no point in the story where I thought “no way a woman wrote this” and there are no points wherein I felt the heroine did anything TSTL that a male author might mistake as “womanly.” So…even though I’m disappointed to learn of the gender deception, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a good book.
This all makes me uneasy. It sounds too much like:
“I just read this great new work on political philosophy, A Vindication of the Rights of Man. I recommend it highly to all educated and thoughtful men.”
“Uh, you do know that was written by a woman, don’t you?”
“Was it really? Well, that explains why it’s such a terrible book. I always thought there was something wrong with it.”
I totally understand. I’ve been chasing my tail for two days about this, asking myself if I’m being inconsistent. Where this particular situation sets off my irritation is that this specific genre focuses on the victimization of women due to toxic masculinity and rape culture, through tools like gas lighting – and to me, this feels a lot like gas lighting, especially coupled the ridiculous sexism of the headlines (“They don’t mind if you think they’re women — because they’re making money off the deception, ha ha ha!”).
Essentially, gender and all expressions therein shouldn’t matter, but it does because things are far from equal.
I guess where this pen name thing sticks in my craw is when the people with the most power (i.e., white men) are trying to gain the advantage of authenticity by using a pen name that skews toward a marginalized group. There was some white male poet who admitted that he often submits poems under a Chinese pseudonym because he gets fewer rejections that way. Obviously, that’s awful. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/09/books/a-white-poet-borrows-a-chinese-name-and-sets-off-fireworks.html
This has a bit of that same flavor to me because white males already enjoy all the publishing and reviewing privilege, and so the only reason they’re doing this is to pass themselves off as having a more authentic insight into a woman’s psyche or something. When women cook it’s seen as women’s work but when men do it, they’re chefs. When a man writes a story about a marriage falling apart it’s literary fiction but when a woman does it it’s “women’s fiction.” I don’t know. I feel like I’m not making my point well, but this does feel icky to me in a way that other pen name usage does not.
Megan: I’m not trolling my own thread but you expressed your point VERY well. I was nodding the whole time reading your comment.
@ SB Sarah, my reaction was to the “men pretending to be women for money” section of the article, and my reaction was both knee jerk and deeply entwined with my experience as a trans person.
I’ve found that recently my relationship with thrillers and crime media has gotten more complex and distant. I don’t read many thrillers anymore, mainly because I don’t like the violence; I like the detectives and the satisfaction of solving a case, but the violence often feels like it’s gratuitous. I’ve found only a handful of mystery authors I really enjoy reading (like Louise Penny) who focus more on the solving-a-case aspect, rather than violence.
The “only the strength of the writing should matter” thing also came up up a couple of years ago in relation to a white man who adopted a Chinese pseudonym specifically to exploit the perceived “advantage” of being a minority.
Women and POC were held up as male-ifying and white-ifying their pseudonyms all the time, so what’s the difference?
The difference is, women and POC do it to crack through an unjust bubble of white male privilege to get an equal opportunity that those who dwell within take for granted, while white men do it to exploit those who are institutionally given fewer opportunities and seize MORE privilege than what was already bestowed upon them at birth by virtue of being pale and having a penis. (And they deny any such privilege exists most strenuously when striving to ensure no one else gets a piece of what’s theirs.)
In order to be “fair” to white men, the playing field must first be level for EVERYONE. Until that happens, “fair” is criticizing them by the same standards they apply to others, which are typically “unfair.” (It sure would be nice if everyone was judged on the quality of their work and not circumstances of birth, wouldn’t it?)
The difference is, no matter how these men are judged, it’s not going to negatively affect their income and future publishing prospects because they’re still safely inside that bubble.
Gah! It took me so long to screed, Megan M. made my point first.
I didn’t copy her homework, I swear! 😛
I am just here to *strongly* echo Megan M. and Ren Benton. There are a huge number of issues with this—it is a trip into structural problems, really. Publishing, right along with pretty much everything else, is stacked against women and people of color.
Men—mostly white men—dominate literary cristicism, as discussed here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/apr/07/male-writers-continue-dominate-literary-criticism-vida-study-finds
Books *about* women are less likely to win prestigious prizes: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jun/01/books-about-women-less-likely-to-win-prizes-study-finds
But women are pretty generally underrepresented in literary awards: https://qz.com/838175/the-national-book-award-and-other-top-literary-prizes-seriously-under-represent-women/
Even the words used to describe writers who happen to be women are gendered and stereotyped, with words like husband, daughter, sex, and emotion among the most common (for dudes, it’s military, hero, war—stuff like that): https://newrepublic.com/article/132531/women-write-family-men-write-war
I’d love to see a day when we can judge simply on the merits of the book, but with structural racism and sexism alive and well, that day isn’t today. And so this situation makes me feel dirty, and I plan to avoid those danged books and continue striving to read more books by women and people of color and members of the LBTQIA+ community and folks who, like me, have disabilities of some kind or another.
Maybe I’m just not getting it but at the end of the day I don’t care if the author is a man, a woman or a plant, just as long as the story is good.
It’s nice to think that every book or movie or whatever should be solely judged by its own merits but that doesn’t work out in the real world in the same way that being colorblind to race doesn’t. I would be way more comfortable with these men writing books about women and not trying to essentially trick their audience into reading them.
The whole trying on a bra to really understand women thing drives the point home. Dude, putting on a bra tells you jack shit about my life. It wouldn’t convey anything about what life with breasts is like beyond a piece of underwear. This guy hasn’t experienced large breasts and early puberty giving adult men license to make sexual suggestive comments to a 12 year old, he has no idea what it’s like to have your employer look down your shirt, and I’m sure he hasn’t spent all day at work with an underwire that popped out poking his chest. So sorry, not sorry I’m not reading your book because I don’t think you know anything about being a woman and you don’t care to learn beyond the momentary shallow experience of putting on a bra.
@Ren Benton – I feel like you expressed “our” point much better. LOL
@SBSarah – Thank you so much.
@Varian – I love Louise Penny!! LOVE her. Vive Gamache! 🙂
Maybe my comment is too that’s why it’s not being shown. I’ll try breaking it up.
Just because they use ambiguous pseudonyms doesn’t mean they submitted their books that way. The publishers may have known they were men when they agreed to publish the book. It sounds to me like a marketing strategy they cooked up. As far as I know J K Rowling submitted Harry Potter under the name Joanne Rowling it was the publisher who changed it to J K Rowling. (J K is short for Joanne Kathleen.)
I’m falling on the side of “Do they get the feel of the characters, particularly the women, right? Do they express what a woman feels, and not the creepy ‘noticed her nipples were hardening as she saw his manly chest’ text? I myself am a cis female with some masculine tendencies, but I am happy to accept a man writing a woman if he really gets the stuff right. And that includes cramps, high heels and all.
I do have two disclaimers though:
1) I admit to being disappointed when a favourite “stories of lasses getting themselves out of situations using their intelligence and knowledge” author with a woman’s name turned out to be a pseudonym, but more because I thought “she” might be related to my husband’s family, not that “she” was a man. (Madeleine Brent was actually Peter O’Donnell.
2) I know someone amab who writes very good lesbian erotica under a gender neutral name, and who does not correct people when they assume the writer is a woman. If he has the ability to write that well, then should the gender be an issue? (I am a little biased about this author’s writing though as they are someone I know quite well).
::removes ‘Final Girls’ from Amazon Wish List::
I read plenty of books by male authors. I’d have to count up, but my authorial M/F distribution is probably 40/60. So, don’t lie to me or attempt to manipulate me into buying your book.
I’ve been thinking about this all night. It occurs to me that I have no problem with a guy writing romances under a female pen name, because that’s the only way he could write in the genre, really, and have his work stand or fall on its own merits. Romance is a space where there’s no room for men, so they use that tool, just like women have published under male names forever.
It’s in thrillers, which in theory are equal opportunity, but like all publishing (and society) default belong(ed) to men. So women carve out a little space and men come along and say, oops, let me just get in on that. That’s what bothers me. The reason to publish as a man isn’t because people don’t buy books with men’s name; it’s to mislead me based on my expectations. It’s to use my feminism, or some small corner of it, to benefit the dude who’s selling the book.
Also, I will point out that I disliked Final Girls before I knew the writer was a guy. I’ll admit that now that I know that, a lot of the things I didn’t like come clear for me–the weird mishmash of realism and camp can’t be blamed on his gender, but the sense that the main character’s inconsistency with her words and actions–yeah, anyone could have done that, but it does seem like a very “chicks, amirite?” way of writing a woman with problems.
Before I Go To Sleep, on the other hand, I read years ago, didn’t know it was by a man till I read this article, and still, in retrospect, enjoyed. It stood on its own merits. They used false marketing to sell me something that was actually good and stood on its own. So I’m annoyed, but I got what I paid for–a book with a female protagonist who seemed like a human being. Annoyed at the lying, but I wasn’t cheated, at least.
Sorry for the tome. Like I said, I’ve been thinking about this all night.
What I read here isn’t so much the writers hiding that they are men as the publishers. That’s were I get mad. The publishers went hmmm women are really buy thrillers written by women, did they think get me more women writers,NOPE,the thought was let’s put out books by men and make it look like their women, perfect. Maybe this answers the question can a man think like a women, apparently not because other wise they would have know how this wad going to go over when it got out.
Thank you, to Sarah for the original post, and to all the thoughtful commenters. This sort of discussion is one of the reasons I love SBTB.
I read The Girl Before and I did think it seemed “off,” for female POV. There was all this implied stuff about Red Pill-style alpha males and other things that reminded me of some of the seedier parts of Reddit.
ETA: There are two recent thrillers called The Girl Before, incidentally, and my comments apply to the Delaney one. I haven’t read the other one and don’t know anything about the author.
@Kelly L. – Yes! I read the blurb for that and thought “that’s ridiculous; you could never convince me that any human being would agree to that situation.” I mean, not that a woman couldn’t write something like that, but the power trip setup is totally a dude thing.
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