When You’re Prepared to Give Up Name and Face

I’ve known for a very long time that I want to write for a living. Been writing since childhood, y’see, and at some point it occurred to me that being a writer was the most sensible thing to do for a person who was decent with words and wanted to be lots of things. A writer can vicariously be whatever they damn well please. A writer can spend all day every day fantasizing, and get paid for it.

So yes, I knew by my teens that I wanted to be a writer. And I began doing all of the things necessary to become one. Literature classes. Creative writing classes. Job in book store. Change name.

Oh, yes, the name change was essential. I share my legal last name with a well-known retailer. It isn’t the done thing to crack your adoring public over the head with your latest hardcover for cracking jokes. And a character of mine had filched my first name and refused to give it back. And stalkers. And I wanted to be taken seriously. That, I thought, required picking a male pseudonym – or at least masquerading by initials.

It amazes me now just how I took for granted that women aren’t equal to men in SF. I’d absorbed that lesson to such an extent that I saw talented women as anomalies; if a woman’s name was on the cover, I automatically assumed the contents would be pink and fluffy and not at all as good as the stuff by the men. So what if some of my favorite authors were unapologetically female? They were exceptions to the rule. Just like I would be. If anyone gave my writing a chance, anyway, and didn’t dismiss it on the automatic assumption that it could be safely discarded due to having been written by a girl.

And so I planned for my future in the genre by spending hours shuffling combinations of initials with potential last names, searching for combos that wouldn’t give my gender away.

Then there was the great face debate.

Author Details Unknown
Author Details Unknown

The whole smoke-and-mirrors with initials would be for naught if I plastered my picture on the back of the book. This mug o’ mine ain’t exactly masculine. So at first, I decided that particular personal touch would have to be avoided. I don’t remember thinking so far as which pronouns to use in the author bio, but of course one misplaced “she” or “her” would give the game away. I’m not sure I’d have risked it. Granted, it wouldn’t be so obvious as a girly name or photo, but still, if people had paid attention, the jig would be up and I’d be back to trying to get a fair hearing despite being female.

I knew it wasn’t fair. But hey, you can’t fight reality, right? Do what you gotta do, and don’t be a pathetic whiner about it.

My reluctance to put myself forward as a female faded gradually. I got older, and perhaps braver, and definitely less inclined to accept the world as-is. I chose the name of a goddess – although not an overtly feminine name, I didn’t dismiss it because it didn’t belong to a male, but reveled in the fact that it belonged to a kick-ass goddess who was mother to a whole people. A bit later, I decided I’d do a photo. I figured it was time to join the ranks of unapologetic women who were demanding people acknowledge that SF wasn’t just a man’s genre. I started paying attention to the gender mix in my stories: I’d always had a strong female lead, but struggled to overcome a heavily male-skewed supporting cast. I started battling the tendency within myself to give women authors automatic short shrift – and it’s a good thing, considering the number of women doing excellent work.

A lot of things have gone in to undoing a lifetime of cultural conditioning against my own gender, but this questioning a previously unquestionable status quo, and the encouragement of those writers within the SF community to address gender bias in both authors and characters, certainly contributed much of the initial momentum. I still haven’t wrestled my birth name back from the character who filched it, but at least I’m not ashamed to have a woman’s name and a woman’s face on my work. I won’t give them up again.

Moi at Monterey Bay Aquarium. Image courtesy Cujo 359.
Moi at Monterey Bay Aquarium. Image courtesy Cujo 359.

Some interesting articles while we’re on the subject of women in SF:

Ask Nicola: A shocking UK sf ‘favourites’ score: men 500, women 18 .

The Guardian: The incredible shrinking presence of women SF writers.

Fantasy & Science Fiction: Women Writing Science Fiction: Some Voices from the Trenches.

NPR’s Monkey See: Women, Men And Fiction: Notes On How Not To Answer Hard Questions.

Wikipedia: Women in speculative fiction.

When You’re Prepared to Give Up Name and Face

12 thoughts on “When You’re Prepared to Give Up Name and Face

  1. rq

    As an interesting aside, Dana is also a boys’ name (I think originally was!). In grade school and high school, there was a Dana a grade below me. ;) I wanted to mention this the last time you wrote about having an author name, since you went to great trouble to explain about choosing a woman’s vs. a man’s name as pseudonym. Just wanted to let you know that your option can actually go both ways. (Kind of like Dara O’Briain, too – I always thought Dara was a girl’s name!)
    Anyway, good luck getting your name back from that character. Hah. Pry it out of their cold, life-like, literary fingers. (Seriously, good luck.)

  2. 5

    I like Elizabeth Moon, but then I like military SF. (We all have our failings.)
    I started reading Andre Norton back in the ’50’s and always assumed the author was female, which bothered me not at all.

  3. 6

    In late 2011, Jen McCreight wrote a post about female characters in fantasy fiction. She wrote specifically about the Harry Potter series and Game of Thrones, and asked “What fantasy novels do you think have feminist ideals? Who are your favorite strong female characters?” The ensuing discussion had many, many recommendations, and crossed over into science fiction as well.


    I mention this in case anyone missed it, or forgot about it.

  4. 9

    I keep trying to find books by you, and failing. Am I wrong in thinking you’ve published some SF or fiction work? if so, could you point towards it?

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