Identity Crisis

Surreal schizophrenic theater mask depicting mixed emotionsAlice Bradley Sheldon, the Bronte Sisters, Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, Mary Ann Evans, Louisa May Alcott—all of these women writers published under men’s names and some, as in the case of Alice Bradley Shelton, died without their readers ever knowing the real name of the author they admired. Shelton, who was the award-winning science fiction writer James Tiptree, Jr., had been dead for ten years before her secret came out. Up until then, she’d been praised as a male author who really understood women. In one of her most famous stories, a woman chooses to leave earth and live among aliens because she hates the role that women are assigned on earth. (Read an excerpt from Julie Phillips’ biography of Alice Shelton here.)

Like women writers before her, Shelton apparently adopted a male nom de plume for commercial reasons. She wrote science fiction and in the mid-20thcentury, male writers dominated the genre.

Sadly, things haven’t changed much.

In the past 50 years, only eleven women have won the Hugo Award for best novel. Several of them—Ursula K. Le Guin, C.J. Cherryh, Connie Willis, and Lois McMaster Bujold—have won multiple times, with Bujold winning two Hugos back to back and another two in the next decade. (The year Connie Willis won her third Hugo (for Blackout: All Clean), she beat out Lois McMaster Bujold, who has been nominated ten times.)

Only one woman of color, this year’s winner N.K. Jemisin (for The Fifth Season), has won in the last 50 years. (A look at each year’s nominees shows that often, a woman isn’t even nominated in that top category.) So, sci fi still seems to be a boy’s club.

The fantasy landscape mirrors that of science fiction. Only eleven women have won the Nebula Award for best novel since 1966, with Ursula K. Le Guin, Vonda N. McIntyre, and Lois McMaster Bujold winning multiple times. And, as with the Hugos, only one African-American writer (Octavia E. Butler) made the cut.

With those kinds of numbers, should a female writer working in the genres of F & SF consider using a ‘sudo? Would she find more commercial success? More artistic acclaim?

I write under several different names but I don’t make a secret of these writerly alter-egos. My science fiction and fantasy stories come out under the pen name “Kat Parrish.” My crime and horror is written under my real name. I split the work up to keep readers from getting annoyed because they’ve picked something up that’s not to their taste. (Who needs a one-star review?)

I write a lot of different kinds of stories and someone who enjoys one of my HEA fairy tale retellings might not enjoy one of my hard-edged horror pieces, which tend to be very dark. When I started writing my crime fiction, I thought long and hard about writing under a male name. I even had one picked out—R. Lee Parrish. R for my father’s first name; Lee for my brother’s middle name, and Parrish for my middle name. It had a nice ring to it, and crime fiction, despite mega-best-selling female authors, is still perceived by many as a genre reserved for the boys.

In the end, I decided that writing in my favorite genre under a made up name that hid my (gender) identity wasn’t for me. The Bronte sisters wrote in the 19th century. Here we are, two hundred years later, and some female writers still feel the need to do the same.

I really hope in 2216 an author gender won’t matter anymore.