This post is more accurately titled “Should Female Writers Abbreviate Their Names?”, since they are, it seems, the writers who most commonly do so.
The short and simply answer to the question is, of course, “They should do whatever they want.” For I’m not here to dictate otherwise, especially given the numerous different reasons a female writer would choose to use her initials instead of her full name:
- She had a given name that’s difficult to pronounce or spell
- To create a new identify for writing in a different genre
- To maintain a measure of distance from her non-writing life
- Because another author has her exact same name
- Because she dislikes for her given name
- To emulate classical male writers who used abbreviations, such as C.S. Forrester, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and J.D. Salinger
Just to name a few.
There is, however, another reason some female authors might abbreviate their names – a reason that, I’m not gonna lie, irritates me every time I hear about it.
That being, as a means of disguising their sex. Because they feel they have to to achieve both success and respect within their genres.
What’s in a name?
From the Bronte sisters – Ellis (Emily), Acton (Anne), and Currer (Charlotte) Bell – to Andre (Alice Mary) Norton, from A.M. Barnard (Louisa May Alcott) to V.C. (Cleo Virginia) Andrews, from C.J. (Carolyn Janice) Cherryh to Harry Potter author, J.K. (Joanne) Rowling (who also writes mysteries under the name Robert Galbraith), there’s a grand tradition in writing of female authors using male pseudonyms and initials to conceal their sex.
The reasoning for Rowling’s abbreviated name is as well-known as it is unapologetic. Simply put, it was done for fear that boys wouldn’t read a book written by a female author. This in spite of the fact that Harry Potter’s eponymous main character is male.
(Sci-fi great C.J. Cherryh’s name was abbreviated for the exact same reason back in the 1970s, incidentally.)
Whenever I hear the story about Rowling, I get a little more annoyed each time. And the same question keeps popping into my head:
Why are female writers and their publishers so eager to accommodate male readers?
Once my irritation subsides a bit, the question becomes more of an academic one, with full respect for all the men who are worthy of being respected.
It’s long been demonstrated by what may well be the most successful genres of all time – i.e. romance – that writing for female readers can be profitable.
Admittedly, not all writers enjoy such overtly female-centric, formula-heavy storytelling conventions. There are many female writers who instead prefer genres more traditionally read (and written) by men, e.g. mystery, thriller, and sci-fi, to name a but few in which I notice the greatest proportion of abbreviated female names.
Yet even for female writers of these more male-centric genres, the reading audience may well still be female, for studies apparently claim that women comprise 80% of fiction readers in North America and Britain.
So why is it so important for female writing to impress the few and the proud male readers? Why are female writers willing to diminish their very names – to delete any trace of their femaleness from their book covers – for the benefit of those male readers who would never knowingly read a book written by a woman?
Of course, I already know the answer to these questions.
There are countless historic and societal factors at play. Historically, literature was the exclusive purview of men, both writing and reading it. Given that even women just reading often resulted in scandal among family members and the wider community, any woman wanting to write had no choice but to pretend to be a man.
Societally, books by male writers tend to win more awards, from such genre- and geographically-specific prizes as the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best Mystery Novel to the international Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel winner for 2013 – Canadian author Alice Munro – is only the 13th woman to win in the award’s 114-year history.
Male-centric genres and writing are also taken more seriously. The mystery and thriller genres are seen as timeless whereas romance – which has been around just as long, if not longer – is considered frivolous except when a male writer like Nicholas Sparks (or in the case of YA, John Green) arrives to “save” the genre from itself.
Women are perceived to write about relationships and feelings and all the other female eccentricities that men dislike and don’t understand, to the equal disdain of those troglodytic knuckle-draggers who believe a woman’s proper role is to make him a sandwich right on up to University of Toronto English professor, David “I’m not interested in teaching books by women. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys” Gilmour.
It’s a sad attitude for both men and society to take regarding women’s writing, for exposing oneself to new ideas and experiences – particularly the ideas and experiences of 50% of the world’s population – and empathizing with ways of life that are different from one’s own can literally make the world a better place.
Say my name
I don’t ever want abbreviate my name in my writing as a means of concealing my sex.
Because as much as I want all readers to someday pick up my book, I want them to do so willingly, and with full knowledge of the fact that I’m female. I’m not interested in trying to trick anyone into reading my book. If a male reader wouldn’t have otherwise even considered reading me, well then I don’t care. He’s not the reader I’m writing for.
It’s his loss.
I do, however, want to see my work published and read as much as the next writer. I recognize that I make the above statement from the relative safety of a genre (historical fiction) already abounding with successful female authors, and that the path forward has been paved for me already.
Is it for women to embrace the freedom of self-publishing and build a critical mass of successful fiction with female names on the cover beyond the confines of traditional publishing?
Is it for female writers to badger traditional publishing nonstop with their excellent writing submissions until the powers-that-be finally stand behind the entire author instead of just the first letter of her first and middle name?
Every female writer must examine both her publishing goals and personal values and choose for herself.
My goal with this post has been to help make that choice a fully informed one.