Gender Bender: George Eliot to Riley Sager Writing Under Pseudonyms

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Sometime in August 2015, I came across an article in The Independent, which talked about the women authors who had chosen to write under male pseudonyms. There was nothing new in the phenomenon. The Bronte sisters had done it way back in 1846. Their poems were published under the pseudonyms of Ellis Currer and Acton Bell. Mary Anne Evans repeated the feat by using George Eliot as her pen name. There were several women writers, who found acceptability after adopting a male pseudonym. Perhaps, the norm of Victorian times necessitated such steps.

Have things really changed, I wondered when none other than JK Rowling chose to write a new series of books using Robert Galbraith as her name.

There were others like Erika Mitchell, Nora Robert and Phyllis Dorothy masquerading as EL James, JD Robb and PD James. Most of these women authors went under a male name or adopted a gender-neutral name by using their initials. The use of initials made it difficult for the reader to guess the sex of the writer.

Catherine Nichols, in a bid to test the truth about gender bias in the literary world, sent her novel to fifty agents. She received a response from just two of them. Disappointed, she sent the novel to the same agents, once more. This time, using a male pseudonym. The result was an eye-opener. Nichols received a favourable response from seventeen of the fifty agents she had approached.

It was true. Gender bias existed in the literary world. Finding acceptability as a writer seemed to depend on the author’s sex rather than her talent.

It was true. Gender bias existed in the literary world. Finding acceptability as a writer seemed to depend on the author’s sex rather than her talent. It was understandable during the nineteenth century, but to suffer the same fate almost two centuries later seemed irrational. Enough bastions had been conquered by women to do away with the need for male pseudonyms, I felt.

Most publishers and readers harboured the belief that women were capable of writing about romance, but thrillers and detective fiction was a man’s domain. This belief was shattered by the phenomenal success of Agatha Christie’s detective novels, which ushered in a new era. She was crowned as the queen of the detective genre and her protagonist, Hercule Poirot, became a household name.

According to publishers, the years between the 1920s and 30s were the golden years for women detective fiction writers. Crime writers like Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, and Ngaio Marsh perfected the art of dishing out detective books that captured the imagination of readers. In the next couple of decades, book lovers came across excellent detective fiction writers like Dorothy B Hughes, Caroline Graham, Ruth Rendall, Anne Cleaves, Jacqueline Winspear and Sue Grafton. The list of women crime writers is long and impressive.

Women writers were on a roll. People could no longer dismiss them as chick lit writers. This was especially true after the phenomenal success of Paula Hawkin’s The Girl on the Train, and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

The trend had reversed. In the recent years, realising the power of a feminine name, male writers have begun writing under female pseudonyms or adopting gender-neutral names. Riley Sager, who has written Final Girls, is actually a male writer called Todd Ritter, who has adopted a gender-neutral name and is often mistaken to be a woman by his readers. Keeping up the pretence, Ritter does not post his pictures on his Instagram account or the website. The book jacket doesn’t carry his picture, either.

Interesting, a survey carried out in 2010 found that there were more women readers of crime fiction than men. This could be one reason why male writers are adopting female names.

To cite a few examples, JP Delaney is none other than Tony Strong, AJ Finn is Daniel Mallory, SK Tremayne is Sean Thomas, Tania Carver is a male writer called Martyn Waites. Ironic indeed. The good news doesn’t end here. I jumped with joy when told that Steve Watson, the author of the bestselling book Before I Go to Sleep, writing as SJ Watson, went as far as trying out a bra while writing the book.

Hallelujah! Women crime writers have finally conquered the last bastion.

Also Read: Debutante Writers Who Made a Mark in 2017

Tanushree is a self-confessed word-a-holic and a traveller. A Closetful of Skeletons is her sixth novel.

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