What’s in a Name?

ArmadilloCon panelOn 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.

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What’s in a Name? — 14 Comments

  1. “John Nance Garner IV,” vice president of the United States under FDR, is probably the most famous Nance. Son of John Nance Garner III, great-grandson of Eleanor (Nance) Garner, whose son John Nance Garner was clearly named for her father.

  2. Give me the best of both worlds: a diamond-studded sword!

    As one of those “women men don’t see” who is just taking those first tentative steps towards putting my work out there, I’m struggling with this very thing right now. As we get older we become even more invisible on so many levels. And dismissible. Not to mention the fact that the internet is, quite frankly, a terrifying place for women. I guess I just don’t have the fortitude to stand up to the onslaught I once had. Plus, I have some deeply personal reasons for not necessarily wanting the entire world to know exactly who I am.

    So I’ve decided to do the J. K. Rowling thing and lurk behind my initials, instead of a flat-out pseudonym. Keep ’em all guessing.

    • Initials can be useful. If I had a longer last name, I might have gone with initials. And if you don’t want people to know a lot about you, they can help.

      I wonder if in this Internet World it is possible for some writers to be known only by their written word, as people like Sheldon/Tiptree were for many years. I can see the value in that.

      Several people in BVC use different variations on their names for different kinds of fiction — first names for fantasy, perhaps, and initials for historical fiction. Some also use pseudonyms.

      As a lawyer and reporter, I always used Nancy J. Moore, because it seemed businesslike. But one day I stumbled across a piece on class actions written by Nancy J. Moore and was puzzled. I hadn’t written it, even though I was covering class actions at the time. Turned out someone by the same name is a law professor and expert on class actions. The perils of a common name. (She was dead-on in her article, as I recall. Glad to know my namesake was good at her job!)

      • I like the idea of my work standing on its own two feet, without benefit of an attached persona, whether male or female. I’m not an actor (or a real estate agent), so my physical identity isn’t as important as the work I’m presenting. Besides, in the age of over-sharing, a little mystery can be quite alluring…

        Mind, that doesn’t stop me from googling other people whose work I admire to find out more about them. And feeling frustrated when they don’t share as much as I want to know!

        • Most writers are boring people (outside of a few obvious exceptions) and you learn much more about them by reading their work. But humans are social creatures, and when someone says something that intrigues or provokes us, we always want to know more. Even when there’s no more to know.

      • There’s a very successful current Italian author, Elena Ferrante, of whom only the pseudonym is known.

          • I’m on the third novel in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, Nancy. These novels are unusual & excellent. (Remember my WisCon GoH speech, when I talked about the difficulty of writing about working-class life? These novels make us see why it’s so difficult, even as they do it.

            Given the detailed examination of working-class Neapolitan life Ferrante undertakes, & the experiences of the narrator when, as a young unmarried woman from a working-class neighborhood she publishes her first novel, I can easily imagine good & sufficient reasons for her writing these books under a pseudonym. And the shit-storm that arises when student activists merely use the account of a young mother working in a sausage factory in a pamphlet they print up reinforces the lesson of what is at stake when a woman describes the ordinary reality she experiences on a daily basis. When you’re a woman in certain situations, using your own name can be dangerous & ultimately inadvertently subject one’s loved ones to hardship. I don’t know Ferrante’s particular situation; but her novels are saturated with all-too ordinary violence in daily life.

            • That’s a real recommendation, Timmi. I’ll give the books a try. I’d like to read something that does a good job with working class lives.

              You make a good point about using a pseudonym when your real name could bring dangers down on yourself. One tends to think about this as necessary in dictatorships, but of course there are other situations where it would be risky to be identified with one’s work. Which is to say that feeling free to use one’s own name is another one of those advantages in life that some of us have and don’t even realize.

  3. Like you, Nancy, I want to own up to my books. Jacey Bedford is my real (married) name. Whether people take it as male or female is up to them, but if they bother to look on my website (jaceybedford.co.uk) there’s a photo so my gender is obvious. As far as names go, however, it wouldn’t help gender recognition if I added in my middle name, which is Randal. Whern my first book was published, my only choice was whether to use my married surname or my birth surname (Lockyer), but I’ve been Jacey Bedford for twice as long as I ever was Jacey Lockyer. Besides Bedford it closer to the front of the alphabet – if that counts for anything these days.

    • You’re the only Jacey I know, so I think of Jacey as a female name. But it occurs to me that I use “Jace” as a gender-neutral name in a lot of stories, so it’s clearly not fixed.

      I don’t know if the front of the alphabet is as useful as it used to be, but I know that when I’m looking through the books in the library or bookstore I always start at the beginning of the alphabet. Which means I always know what’s out from authors whose last names start with “A” and tend to get a little overwhelmed by the time I get to the “Ls”.