Kay: The Power of a Name

The "Lenox Copy" of the Gutenberg Bible, New York Public Library. By NYC Wanderer (Kevin Eng) - originally posted to Flickr as Gutenberg Bible, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9914015

The book that started mass market publishing: The “Lenox Copy” of the Gutenberg Bible, New York Public Library. Photo by NYC Wanderer (Kevin Eng) – originally posted to Flickr as Gutenberg Bible, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9914015

Today I’m feeling extremely happy and fortunate that years ago I decided I wanted to write romance novels. Back then, I wanted to write books that had happy endings, and I wanted to write in a genre that celebrated women’s goals. Of course, romance novelists (and book buyers) are overwhelmingly female, as are many of the editors, designers, and others who produce them, so it’s a female thing right down the line. That gives me a good feeling (although of course I also read books by male authors and enjoy those, too).

Usually at the Eight Ladies we talk about writing, but today I want to talk about publishing because we’ve all had our ups and downs with submissions, contests, rejections, and wins. The other day I read an article about Catherine Nichols, who wrote a literary novel and wanted to get it published. So she sent it out to 50 agents and received two manuscript requests. Yay, right?

Not so fast. Then she tried an experiment. She set up a new email address using a male pseudonym and submitted the same cover letter and pages to a different 50 agents using her male name. This time, she got 17 manuscript requests.

Agents said that Catherine Nichols’s work contained “beautiful writing, but your main character isn’t very plucky, is she?” However, responses to her male name, even when the manuscript was rejected, included adjectives such as “clever,” “well-constructed,” or “exciting.”

Nichols avoided sending her submission to the same agents, but in one case, an agent who’d rejected Catherine’s book asked to read the book by her male name, and then asked to send that book to a more senior agent. The 50 agents, Nichols reports in an essay she wrote for Jezebel, were both men and women. “[B]ias would hardly have a chance to damage people if it weren’t pervasive,” she writes.

The literary world has been scrutinized for its anti-woman bias. The 2014 Vida survey shows that there are both far fewer female reviewers and female authors reviewed, and author Nicola Griffith recently surveyed novels featuring male protagonists and learned that they’re more likely to win literary awards.

Does this story have a happy ending? Would I be a romance novelist if it didn’t? Nichols has used the comments she received as her male counterpart to rework her novel and now has an agent. That’s great news.

But in the worlds of romance, women’s fiction, and young adult novels, female authors rule. We’re the vast majority of the writers, reviewers, and prize winners. That’s one of the reasons I started writing romance novels in the first place. And today—knowing that I’m in such great company—makes me very happy.

 

9 thoughts on “Kay: The Power of a Name

  1. Catherine Nichols is obviously a talented writer, and I’m glad she found her happy ending, but there was a lot of food for thought in the Jezebel article, Kay, thank you for sharing that. Like you, I’m very happy I chose to join the romance writing community. So far It’s been an overwhelmingly positive and supportive environment.

    • You read about how books by women don’t get reviewed, but it all felt abstract to me until I read that article about that one woman. How terrible to work so hard and know that your chances of getting past the gatekeepers are so much more reduced simply because you’re female? If I’d wanted to write literary novels, I’d be tearing my hair out. I too feel very lucky to be in such a supportive writing environment.

      • Yes, exactly. I was going to say it’s a good thing that the advent of quality, non-vanity self-publishing gives authors another option that wasn’t available (say), a decade ago, but I’m not sure how true this is for literary novelists.

        • Right—I’m not really following the literary novel field much, although surely self-publishing is an option for those authors, too. Perhaps it’s harder for literary novels to get visibility without traditional reviews, so most literary authors go the traditional route? I really have no idea.

  2. This is very interesting. I had no idea that there was an issue with getting books by women reviewed. I know gender-bias exists in a lot of areas, but I somehow thought writing was not one of them. Great that Nichols was able to get her happy ending.

    • The part that I learned from this article that surprised me so much is that books with female protagonists don’t win as many awards as books with male protagonists. The spirit of George Elliott lives on!

  3. I had no idea. I thought a lot of that went out the window when the 20th century rolled around. I could probably get away with Michael Duskova, to tell the truth, and it might be a better thing all around. (Michaeline has always been a pain and a half for people to pronounce.) Only middle-Europeans would twig to the “ova” part of my name, probably.

    I mean, if I were an Amy Tan or a Margaret Atwood, I could say to hell with sexism (in editors and readers and reviewers). But, I don’t think I am. I’d be lucky if I’m a James Tiptree, Jr. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Tiptree,_Jr. who briefly used the pseudonym Raccoona Sheldon, but went back to being James Tiptree. AND, I’d get brownie points for being such a sensitive, caring feminist male . . . .

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