The Great Gender Debate

Recently I have been thinking about this question of gender in relation to authors – and science fiction authors in particular. I’ve read that J.K. Rowling was asked to use her initials rather than her actual name because her publisher was worried that teenage boys might not pick up a book that had been written by a woman. This seems a bit mad to me. I would never be influenced to buy – or not buy – a book, based purely on the author’s gender.

Having said that, I do remember being quite disappointed when reading the marvellous Falco books in my teens to discover that Lindsey Davis was a woman. Since her first person narrator was male, I think I was sort of hoping that Lindsey Davis was, in fact, Marcus Didius Falco, and that when I looked him up online there would be a dashingly handsome author photo that I could drool over. I found that I read the books in a slightly different way once I knew the author was a woman.

I was also taken aback on first discovering that the Madeleine Brent books were actually written by a man (Peter O’Donnell). The author’s gender shouldn’t overly influence the way you read a book but, for me, I find that it does have some impact, if only at the back of my mind. After all, you usually find some of the author themselves in their work. If there was a novel currently in the shops that had been written by the first ever alien novelist then wouldn’t that change the way you read it? Wouldn’t everyone rush out to buy it simply because it had been written by an alien?

When people see my name, they usually expect me to be a man. Indeed, there was this one time at school when a French exchange teacher refused point blank to let me into the classroom to take my French oral exam because she said that Alex Bell was next on the list. I finally got through to her that I was Alex Bell, but it took some rather emphatic insistence on my part.

My full name is Alexandra, but no one has ever called me that (except for this violin teacher I had once who simply could not be dissuaded from it). It therefore never occurred to me to be anything other than Alex on the books. Because my name is gender neutral, I’ve never had to worry about someone declining to pick up one of my novels in a shop because they’re put off by a female name. I was glad that Gollancz didn’t overly market me as a female author, for the simple reason that I just don’t think it’s relevant. It’s like saying: “Here is a great new book that has been written by – wait for it – a person with green eyes!” Well, so what? I feel that if gender is made a big thing of in the marketing, it’s like saying – this is a great book considering the fact that it’s been written by a woman.

So I’m glad that I haven’t really had all that much of that as most people don’t realise I am not, in fact, Mr Bell. But one thing I have had quite a lot of is all this “young author” business. When I first started sending work to agents and publishers when I was eighteen, I never put “Miss” or “Ms” on the SAE, and I certainly never mentioned my age. This was simply because I wanted as much anonymity as possible. I was quite dismayed when my (now) agent first phoned me rather than writing because the cat was then out of the bag. If the agents/publishers didn’t know anything about me then they would judge my work on its own merits rather than judging whether it was any good for a woman, or for a teenager. I wanted to be judged as a writer only – not as a female, teenage writer.

I believe that readers and reviewers can sometimes be unduly influenced if they know too much about the author. For example, I’ve noticed that a writer’s age is only mentioned by a reviewer if they already know that the author is young (I’ve seen this in reviews for Christopher Paolini and Cecelia Ahern’s books as well as my own) – i.e. because the reviewer knows that the author is young, they can’t help but see youth in the writing.

It puts me in mind of a gag Candid Camera did once where wine connoisseurs were invited to try several different types of wine and comment on them. The connoisseurs discussed at great length which wine they felt was superior and why only to find out at the end that each of the five was, in fact, exactly the same wine. They only found differences in them because they expected to. One might even go so far as to say that their desire to appear sophisticated, and come up with something to say about the product, prevented them from seeing it as it really was. I can’t help thinking that if an older author was mistakenly marketed as a young one, then critics would still say things along the lines of: “A good novel, to be sure, but the author’s youth/naivety shows through from time to time” etc. Perhaps that is overly cynical of me, but I doubt it. 

In short, then, I don’t believe there’s anything at all wrong with reading a book in a slightly different way depending on whether the author is a man or a woman, but I don’t think a reader should become so preoccupied with the author that they start reading things into the novel that aren’t there.  And if you’re browsing in a bookstore and you put a book back on the shelf simply because of the author’s gender then, I’m afraid, you are a total moonfruit.

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9 Responses to “The Great Gender Debate”

  1. Christine Says:

    I’ve come across a few reviews of your books online from people that haven’t looked you up or read much about you. The Ninth Circle seemed to have more comments on you being male. Jasmyn seemed to have reviews using “she”.. it makes me wonder, was that because (generalising here!) the content of Jasmyn may be more appealing for females to read? Or was it because Jasmyn was a female character and Gabriel wasn’t? Or did people just look you up?! :D

  2. Richard Burton Says:

    Bit of synchronicity reading this “rant” now; I finished The Ninth Circle yesterday and Googled Alex Bell just because I hadn’t heard of you before and I’d enjoyed the book. I was genuinely surprised that Alex was Alexandra. Didn’t pick up the book based on gender though, I really liked the cover – bit shallow, but hey ho. Brgds.

  3. Alex Bell Says:

    Christine – probably a mixture of all of those. Although when The Ninth Circle came out, I didn’t have a website, so people couldn’t have looked me up very easily.

    Richard – glad to hear you enjoyed the book :-)And there’s nothing shallow about liking the cover. It is a gorgeous, gothic work of art. Kustaa Saksi is a fantastic artist.

  4. Stephen J Sweeney Says:

    I’m not sure the gender thing is such an issue any more, women are becoming more and more empowered every years. And that’s good.

    I can, however, see what Bloomsbury were getting at with Rowling, back in the late 90s. At young ages, boys like to have father figures and male role models to look up to. They’re going to want to listen to music by male artists, hang posters of their favourite footballers on their walls and things like that. Reading a book written by a woman might somehow damage their masculinity, because it’s “girly”.

    I spent 8 years at an all-boys boarding school, so I’ve seen that in full force.

    One thing that continuously winds me up, however, is the whole Eragon debate. For some reason people think he was 15 when he wrote that book… and still *is*.

    Oh… congrats on your books, by the way. Impressed that you chose art over legal practice :)

  5. Alex Bell Says:

    I suppose teenage boys are more likely than other age groups to be influenced by an author’s gender. I still find it odd though. I would’ve thought the front cover would have more of an influence than the author’s name.

    People think Christopher Paolini is still fifteen? Weird, when you consider how long ago that book came out. He’s older than I am. I think if I’d written a book at fifteen that later got published, I would keep my age a closely guarded secret – but only because I’m aware of how it might negatively impact on people.

    And, thanks – I would choose art (and poverty) over law (and riches) every time.

  6. Chris Warren Says:

    The fact is that each of us is unique, and part of that uniquness will be both our gender and our attitude, neither of which is easy to change. Personally, I don’t use the gender of an author as part of the basis on which I select my reading, but some people do and I imagine they do that because, over time, they have developed an attitude (which will be derived from repeated personal experience) that one or the other is generally better for them. We live in a world full of people and, as they say in Yorkshire in England, ‘There’s nowt so strange as folk’.

    On that basis, I can understand an author wanting to disguise their gender from the simple, practicle point of view of maximising sales based on the content of their book and the quality of their writing rather than their sex.

    However, having said that, I didn’t with my recently published book, Randolph’s Challenge Book One – The Pendulum Swings. If someone doesn’t buy or read it because I’m a bloke, then it’s their loss – they can always wait for the film or follow the masses (in disguise, of course) as they flock to the bookstore to order a copy!

    I always profess that French wine is the only wine worth drinking – but when nobody is looking I sometimes by a Chilean, Argentinian, or even a Spanish one!!!!

    Chris Warren
    Author and Freelance Writer
    Randolph’s Challenge Book One – The Pendulum Swings

  7. Kwok Ting Lee Says:

    I don’t use gender as a basis for selecting authors, nor do I care. I do care, however, if the writing turns polemical or attempts to essentially “preach” or “indoctrinate”, because if I want to hear a sermon, I’ll go to a Church, and if I want to be indoctrinated, I can simply recall my experiences in high school.

    On an amusing side note, when I first sent out some short fiction to certain magazines (mostly rejected, which brings me closer to the holy grail of 100 rejection letters necessary to become a bona fide writer), I remember once being advised to simply put my initials K. T. Lee on the by-line, so that it would be more ambiguous as to my ethnicity. Looks like I wasn’t the only one to get that kind of advice.

  8. Jock Says:

    I’ve never in a million years passed on a book because of the authors gender. And its never even occured to me to think of the age. But i will confess that as of late i have been passing on books because of the characters gender. I’ve been reading to many books where the main character be a woman and i feel the need to re-assert my masculinity! Harry Flashman to the rescue!! :D

  9. Alex Bell Says:

    It has been far too long since I last read a Flashman. I must remedy this immediately.

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