The XX Factor

Why Are Women Writers Still Stuck Behind Pseudonyms?

Joanne Rowling, otherwise known as J.K.

Photo by Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images

Some of the biggest heroines of—and authors of—genre fiction these days are women. Suzanne Collins conjured Katniss Everdeen for the Hunger Games series. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books and the movies based on them are massive hits. And nobody’s bigger than J.K. Rowling.

But apparently the success of these women isn’t enough to change their industry: According to the Wall Street Journal, women who write genre fiction are still being urged to use male pseudonyms to avoid turning off male readers who won’t consider picking up a fantasy book by a woman:

The Brontë sisters published their 19th-century masterpieces as the Bell brothers, because, Charlotte Brontë wrote, “we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.” More than 150 years later, women are still facing the same “prejudice” in some sectors of the publishing industry.

“It sometimes makes sense for a female author to use a pseudonym, particularly when the main characters are male, or when it’s a genre with a strong appeal to men, like military science fiction, certain types of fantasy or gritty thrillers,” says Penguin editor Anne Sowards, whose fantasy authors K.A. Stewart, Rob Thurman and K.J. Taylor are women.

It’s insulting that publishers continue to think that they need to cater to the ridiculous biases of male readers, particularly when the industry so easily assumes that male authors are completely capable of recounting any experience (of a male or female character) to any audience (male or female). Yes, male authors may adopt female or gender-neutral pseudonyms when they’re writing in that most female-oriented genre of romance novels. But nowhere else is it assumed that men have to prove their credentials when they’re writing about issues particular to women. Critics may debate how well George R.R. Martin handles things like sexual assault as a weapon of war and the psychological impact of arranged marriages in his Game of Thrones books, but I can’t imagine that anyone would have suggested he masquerade as a woman if he wanted his legion of female characters or his perspectives on those issues to be taken seriously.

The idea that women can only write about and for women, while men are masters of their castles and the world beyond, both on the page and off it, is a relic of an earlier era. Rather than coddling male readers and protecting them from the knowledge that they might be consuming the female perspective, maybe it’s time for publishers to treat their readers like adults—and to spend some of those marketing budgets to reset their male readers’ expectations.