On the panel on trends in feminist science fiction at ArmadilloCon (panelists pictured above in a photo by Elze Hamilton), Stina Leicht observed that she consciously decided to use her given name as a byline when she started writing.
But then she added that, because of that decision, she feels a need to be careful about some of the things she writes. She went on to suggest that someone with a more gender-neutral name might have more freedom in writing their stories.
I was a little shocked by this statement – and said so – because I’ve never even thought about watching what I say just because it’s easy to guess my gender from my given name. (OK, so I’m rather notorious for speaking my mind.) But what she said stuck with me.
When I started thinking about a fiction byline, the only thing I decided to do was to start using my middle name. Being Nancy Jane instead of just Nancy didn’t make me sound any less female, but it did make my common name stand out a little bit.
Truth is, I’ve always hated the idea of pseudonyms. The fact that Carolyn Heilbrun felt the need to write her fiction as Amanda Cross to protect her academic career always bothered me. She was probably right – a woman professor writing mysteries might well have not been taken seriously at Columbia, where she was the first woman in the English Department to get tenure. But that’s still depressing.
Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr. probably made her choice so that she could be someone different as a writer, which is more understandable. I do wonder if “The Women Men Don’t See” would have been published and lauded had people known at the time the author was a woman, though I’ve always thought that only a woman would have been aware of that kind of invisibleness in 1973.
In my case, using my birth name is due to ego: I always want everyone to know that I wrote those books and stories, including the person who sat behind me back in junior high school. By my reasoning, if I use another name, people won’t know it’s me.
But of course, Nancy Jane is a very female name. And although I’m a proud feminist and never had any desire to be male, I’ve never been particularly good at being traditionally female as either a woman or a writer. I went to law school. I’ve done martial arts for more than 35 years. I’d rather have a sword than a diamond ring. (I had a discussion about that with some other women once and was surprised to learn that they preferred the ring by a large margin.)
So maybe I would have been better off if my name were more gender-neutral. I asked my sweetheart for some examples of gender-neutral names that start with “N” and he suggested Nance.
That was an interesting thought, especially since some of my friends call me that anyway. (I don’t mind when others use variations on my name.) Googling it gave me a variety of reactions. One website, which purports to guess gender based on names, said it was a male name. Others saw it as a nickname for Nancy, and several identified it as a rude term for gay men.
But there are men named Nance. It’s more commonly a middle name and probably was originally a surname, but still, use of it could leave some people guessing about my gender.
It’s a little late now, since I’ve been publishing for years and have a novel out that’s collecting some nice reviews, all under the Nancy Jane byline. The people who know me and my work realize I write adventure stories and quirky things.
Besides, my parents named me that. Nancy was my great-grandmother’s name; Jane was my grandmother’s middle name. I know some people need to split off from their families, but I like mine. It’s good to carry on something that came before.
There are cultures where people select their own names at puberty, but I suspect the name I’d have chosen then would have even less relevance to my life today than Nancy Jane does. Looking back, I don’t think puberty is a good time for making important life decisions.
But I can’t help but wonder about the possibilities, especially after seeing this article on Jezebel by Catherine Nichols on what happened when she used a male name to send her novel query to agents.
Sending out the exact same query about the exact same novel, Nichols got way more response using a male name than she using her own. Not only did more agents want to see the book when they thought she was male, but they also gave her more useful criticism on it.
And this was a book with a woman protagonist! I’ve been looking at Nicola Griffith’s work pointing out that not only do books by women get less notice, but so do books about women. However, it seems as if books by men about women don’t suffer as much from that particular blind spot.
I’m pleased to note that Nichols didn’t end up selling her book under a pseudonym. An agent who read her essays contacted her and now represents her. But Nichols is making use of the constructive criticism she got when people thought she was a guy. And she’s telling the rest of us what happened.
Names are still something for women writers to think about. I’d like to think I’d live long enough to see that problem disappear, but I keep getting older and things keep not changing as fast as they should. Sigh.