I sometimes begin speaking engagements by explaining to the audience that I am not a British man.
Of course they can see that by looking at me. It is less obvious, it seems, when they only have a page of writing to consider. Apparently I am linguistically androgynous. The editor who worked on one of my books referred to me throughout her notes as “he.” I once fed some of the text from my first novel into a computer program that was supposed to tell you how masculine or feminine your language was and I was told that my writing was very male. There was also a brief period after my novel Angel was published that the internet decided I was a gay man and started showing me ads for gay luxury travel and dating sites on every web page. So I find that it is helpful just to put it out there that I am not male, gay or otherwise.
Throughout the years a number of professional reviewers have referred to me as “British author Laura Lee.” I never claimed to be from England. The reviewers came to this conclusion on their own. I am not sure if the different reviewers read my writing and independently imagined I sounded British or if one person did and the others picked up on this mistake via internet research.
I am a woman from metro Detroit.
Lately, though, I’ve been giving some thought to becoming that British man. No, I’m not contemplating gender re-assignment surgery or immigration, just a pen name. By writing with a pen name, authors have the opportunity to shed their identities and take on new ones. Given how often writers complain about being constrained by their identity categories, you would think most authors would opt for pen names. Yet so few of us do use them, trying as we are to get that professional writer identity to stick to our persons.
Yet I have, of late, started to wonder if my fate would have been different if I had released Identity Theft under a nom de plume. Suppose Identity Theft were written by a bloke, say Lancelot Balderdash. (I wanted to use Benedict Cumberbatch, but it was already taken.)
Now, this is a strange notion given that I have just written a book in which a character takes on the identity of a British man and it doesn’t work out all that well for him. I think I might have better luck. I wouldn’t have to change my style in any way, as the internet tells me I already write like a British man. The only thing different about me would be my name.
Perhaps you are wondering, but Lancelot, why would you want to change your identity?
I have been having a bit of an identity crisis. Back in January I wrote about my frustration at being unable to claim the kind of professional identity my father had.
My father all his life had the unambiguous identity of “writer.” People deferred to him as a writer, they came to him for writing advice. I always had the sense that he was considered to be talented and accomplished in his field. As a girl I was proud of this, and when I found that I had inherited this aptitude I followed in my father’s footsteps…
I have reached the point in my career that I have published more books than my father did in his lifetime…
Lately, I have to admit that I have been frustrated at my inability to claim the kind of professional identity my father had. It is impossible to separate out the variables, of course.I have a different personality from my father. He liked to be the alpha in a room and I an deeply introverted and do not like to talk about myself.
It may be the self-publishing revolution that makes everyone assume a 21st Century “writer” is a hobbyist. I suspect the impression that I must be a hobbyist is made up of a combination of easy publishing and assumptions about gender. When a woman says “I am a writer” the snap judgement is that she self-publishes– most likely memoir, romance or romantic comedy.
About a year ago I was contacted by an agent who had read my proposal for the novel Identity Theft. He praised my use of language and my characters (the male characters especially) “You can write!” He said he thought Identity Theft could be a big seller, but he wanted me to change the ending, which he felt was not predictable enough.
What he said specifically was that the beginning suggested a certain ending that readers will expect and that this is the ending you have to give them.
Normally, this should have been the beginning of a great working relationship. It is hard to find an agent who expresses such enthusiasm for your work and who is ready to champion it.
But then he went into teaching mode. He explained how the industry works, what the audience wants, and what sells. He was assuming the role of the professor and educating me, positioning me as the student and an amateur. If I had a different opinion it was because I had not learned the ropes yet. I found myself arguing, not because I was entirely opposed to his editorial suggestions (in fact I incorporated some of them), but because I wanted to be addressed as a fellow professional, someone who had put in the time and labor, who had informed opinions and made conscious choices.
I do not know for sure, but I have a strong suspicion that female writers are more likely to be given feedback in a didactic mode than are male writers, by male and female reviewers alike. If I were to become Lancelot, I could test this hypothesis.
Today I was sent a negative, unpublished review of my new novel from a blogger who didn’t like my style. In the interest of full disclosure, I shall say that I only received this unpublished feedback because I requested it. The blogger does not publish negative reviews, and had declined to review the book. I guess you would call it a book recommendation site. Even though she hadn’t liked it, and didn’t want to review, I was curious to have her elaborate. (I wrote about a similar situation three years ago.)
When you read something and it doesn’t resonate there are a couple of ways to respond. How you respond depends to a great extent on what you assume about the identity of the writer– whether or not you think the writer is professional or not.
If you think that it is the work of a pro, even if you do not like it, you are likely to say “This doesn’t appeal to me because I’ve never liked it when…”
If you think you are addressing an amateur you might try to teach her what she has done wrong.
My reviewer wrote in teaching mode.
She explained that she had read more than 500 romance novels, which would have been totally relevant if my book were a romance novel. She then set out to educate me about the creation of characters, the concept of “show don’t tell,” the standard plots of romance novels, the importance of plot twists, the basics of cover design and the selection of titles. There was a distinct “don’t worry, you’ll get there eventually” tone in what she wrote. She went on to try to soothe my feelings by explaining that the book was not terrible, she just had high standards because she usually read “books by best selling or adept authors.” Ooh! Snap! (“Don’t worry that I didn’t like your book. It’s not that terrible. I’m just used to reading authors who don’t suck.”)
Here’s what you may have noticed about these two reviews.
1. They read the same text and came to opposite conclusions. The agent liked my writing style and characters but wanted the plot to follow a traditional romantic comedy format. (His Happy End was a feminine happy end where the protagonist is victorious if she ends up in love.) The blogger did not like my word choices, my style or the characters and felt that the plot was too predictable and needed some unexpected twists. (I’m not actually sure, based on what she wrote, that she finished it to know what twists there were. I know that the agent only read the first three chapters, a synopsis and an outline before deciding it had the wrong ending.)
2. They both assumed that I was writing a romance novel or romantic comedy and judged it according to that standard.
3. They both took a didactic tone when expressing their views to me, talking to me as someone who is just starting out and who needs to be educated in the field. Although they said opposite things, they both spoke as though their opinions were the objective truth about the proper way to write a novel.
I don’t believe they would make the same assumptions about Lancelot Balderdash’s Identity Theft or that they would speak to him in teacher mode. I could be wrong, but I should like very much to have the opportunity to test it. I believe I should like that very much indeed.
[The opening paragraph of this article was adapted from a guest post I wrote for LP on 45.]