Thoughts from a Second Class Citizen

Recent news in the mystery community has sparked a conversation about male authors using female pseudonyms for books specifically targeting women readers.

While pseudonyms have been around for years – I’ll be using one myself on my next series – using them to lure a specific gender of reader is a textbook case of false advertising. Worse, though, is the message it sends…

Women aren’t even good enough to write for other women.

I came into the workforce ill-prepared for sexism. From the moment I was born, my workaholic father assumed I’d have a career equal to that of my two brothers. He’d brag about how smart my mother was and scold her if she, an Italian immigrant who didn’t go to college, doubted her own intelligence.

When I transitioned from acting to writing, I landed a job as an assistant to the executive director of a national organization serving playwrights. I was in his office taking notes one day when I began feeling faint. My boss noticed and asked what was wrong. I was a guileless twentysomething, so I told him the truth: I had cramps. My boss looked me in the eye and said, “As long as women menstruate, they will never be equal.” Those were his exact words. They are burned into my brain.

I’m a relative newcomer to the mystery field, having debuted in 2015. I’ve had nothing but positive experiences with the male authors I’ve met, who’ve embraced and celebrated me. That’s why this egregious dismissal of my gender’s abilities on the part of some publishers – and complicit authors – stings so badly.

How disheartening it is to realize that decades later, my boss’s take on gender parity still holds true. It doesn’t matter if it’s menstruation or menopause.

In the eyes of too many, we are not equal.

BIO: Ellen Byron won the 2018 Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel. She has also won two Left Coast Crime Lefty Awards for Best Humorous Mystery. She is proud to write light, female-centric mysteries.

40 thoughts on “Thoughts from a Second Class Citizen

  1. Some years back there was a discussion on women taking on male pseudonyms. Some writers were considering using male pen names or using their initials. This topic came up because some boys won’t pick up a book with a girl’s name on it. I don’t remember if this was focused on children’s, middle grade or young adult books. What are your thoughts on women taking on male names or using their initials to appeal to male readers? Still false advertising? I’m on the fence on this issue. I guess an argument could be made that all pen names are false advertisement meant to appeal to specific groups of people. Can you link to that discussion?

    What your old boss said was stunning. I don’t know what my reaction would have been at that age or now for that matter because I would want/need to keep the job. Your dad sound really cool to encourage you at such a young age.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Great comments Melody– I wonder if J.K. Rowling would be the author she is today if she originally published with a feminine sounding name? Name bias is pervasive throughout publishing and concerns surrounding whether a name is too feminine or too “foreign” is the reality.

      I see your post, Ellen, as a small, strange victory for feminism. Women are the largest reader group, and we’re finally being seen as a key market. I personally haven’t read many traditional mysteries with a male author and female protagonist (that I know of) because I’m probably biased against a man trying to tell “my” story as a woman. So it’s tough to fault a man for knowing it’s an uphill battle and using a pen name. This is such a difficult topic…Thanks for writing this post. These are discussions we need to be having!

      Liked by 4 people

    2. Thanks, Melody. My issue is with an imprint that announces it’s specifically targeting women readers – and then hires men to write the books under a false female identity. I think that’s wrong in any case, i.e., a middle-aged author posing as a teen to sell YA.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. I see no problem with this. I think what they’re saying is that the gender of the author SHOULDN’T matter, but they realize(or fear) that it DOES matter to readers, publishers, etc. Marketing reflects life, not the other way around. It’s the same reason I don’t make political statements on my Twitter feed (where my goal is to promote audiobooks), or argue with authors on blogs…wait a minute… o_O

      By way of market research, I just went to the goodreads Cozy Mystery discussion group and searched for “male author,” and I can say that there are definitely SOME readers to whom it matters. Interesting story there, of someone dropping an author when they found out “she” was a man. This shouldn’t be surprising, when you think about how you pick your characters’ names, or witness the number of authors using pen names to make other sorts of impressions (because who wants to read a romance novel written by someone named Edna Crump?)

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I respectfully disagree, as I stated above. The issue isn’t pseudonyms. The issue is targeting a female readership – or any readership, male, female, teen, of color – and hiring authors to pretend to be the same as that readership. As a labor lawyer friend pointed out to me, that’s considered false advertising.

        Liked by 3 people

  2. I generally don’t have a problem with authors using pseudonyms for whatever reason. I have heard of male romance and cozy authors adopting female pseudonyms since those genres are typically targeted at women readers. But, being vaguely familiar with the situation you’re referring to, I think the bigger issue here is an individual who has a history of making claims that women can’t write as well as men is spearheading this particular effort to churn out books aimed at female readers. No doubt these male authors were selected for the exact reason you mention, because female authors aren’t capable of producing quality literature. Come to think of it, your former boss’s statement would be a great tagline for the imprint in question. Perhaps you could propose it to them (using a male pseudonym, of course).

    Liked by 7 people

      1. I literally LOL at this! It’s clearly a bot, combining a thesaurus with a Cuisinart to generate Mad-Lib-style tweets every minute or so, but it’s got a great Sam-Spade, cynical-noir kinda feel to it.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Let me preface this by saying, I am aware of the situation that prompted this post. I get the frustration. The issue is jaw dropping in many ways.


    JK Rowling has already been mentioned. She has stated she used her initials, a form of a pen man, in order to hide the fact she is a woman. When she started writing hard boiled mysteries, she went with a different pen name. A male pen name on a book aimed at men with a male main character. Isn’t this the same thing.

    Several years ago, there was a discussion that started in a cozy mystery face book group this way. “So, ladies, do you think men can write as cozy as we can?” I’m not joking, that was the entire first post. When I and others tried to gently point out the sexism in that initial post, the poster still couldn’t see what was wrong with it.

    I was in another discussion a couple of years ago with a book blogger upset because men were writing in the women’s suspense genre under female pen names. “This is our genre. They should leave it to us.”

    These are just two examples that stick out in my mind over the last few years. There are lots more.

    Again, this situation is upsetting because of the people involved and the fact that the first books of this new imprint are going against the purpose of the imprint. I get that. However, there is a lot of sexism on both sides when it comes to reading and books.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Mark, totally agree it’s the same thing with J.K. Rowling. Honestly, I thought that was a raw move on her part when she did it. I get that she used initials to initially not to make gender an issue. Why didn’t she do the same thing with the hardboiled? And yup, saying men can’t write as cozy as women, is also sexist. I don’t think anyone should feel like they have to pose as another gender to sell their books.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. At the time, she was dealing with a children’s book world that staunchly believed boys wouldn’t read books written by female authors. Hopefully things have changed by now–or are at least pointed in the right direction.


  4. At the risk of stirring the pot a bit more, can I ask how you would feel if someone started a imprint to publish male author targeting specifically male readers? Never mind who is behind it or who the authors turn out to be, what do you think of the premise itself? Because there is a part of me that feels a bit put off by the idea of an imprint that is only going to have women authors writing for women.

    Maybe it goes back to my running hobby. There are runs, including mud runs, that announce they are only for women. And I’ve heard women talking at co-Ed races about how nice it is to be able to run without all those men around. Yet I know of no races that are for men only, and I suspect I know what the reaction would be if someone were to try to start one.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Speaking just for me, I hate double standards of any kind. I’m totally cool with races just for men or just for women. And you’re right, there would probably be some kind of outcry if the men tried to create their own race and I would think that was totally unfair if there were women-only races. I belonged to a sorority in college. My sorority is suing Harvard for banning single-sex clubs. As to imprints designed purely for one sex in mind, male or female, as I think about this, I feel like just trying to break down a sales pitch on gender lines is wrong on both sides. How about focusing on what kind of writing the imprint will offer and then letting readers make their own decisions? I don’t care if it’s a man or woman writing about teenagers being raped and murder, I’m not going to read that. Tell me what kind of WRITING your imprint will focus on. That’s what I base my decision on.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. It does strike my as cynical for men to pretend to be women authors in order target female readers. Kind of like the Big Bad Wolf dressing up like grandma so he could devour Little Red Riding Hood.

      Liked by 5 people

  5. Thoughtful post, El! Thank you for sharing. Regarding the recent hubbub, I did pause at the initial announcement’s wording about “complex female characters,” which seemed to suggest most authors weren’t already writing those…

    And the pseudonym issue is definitely carrying the weight of the disparagement of women writers and traditional mysteries that preceded the establishment of this particular imprint and its stated purpose.

    Liked by 7 people

  6. This has been a really interesting discussion. Thanks for posting, Ellen. I agree with the utopian idea that books should be books and one gender doesn’t have a corner on any market. There are — and should be — excellent writers of all genders in all genres. I do take exception, however, to the false equivalence with sports analogies because up until Title IX, every sport was “men’s only.” Women had to fight a freakin’ legal battle to get the same rights. And it’s still not equal. Nor is the book biz. I think men pretending to be women (and we’re not just talking about pseudonyms here) to pander to women readers is yet another egregious example of male privilege and misogyny. Just like a white woman pretending to be black is an egregious example of white privilege and cultural appropriation. None of which is acceptable.

    Liked by 8 people

  7. Well, I’m guilty of using just my initials to get an application to an all male college that i knew would be admitting women in the near future It actually took an act of congress for me to get that application in the seventies. Books are books and should be judged on content That being said, a publisher stating they are targeting women readers and then having men using female names to publish them sounds like a bate a switch to me.

    Thank-you for the discussion and cogent points.

    Liked by 5 people

  8. Great discussion. I’d like to add one thought. It looks to me like the publisher who started all this has suddenly become worried that women are actually better, (or least as good) writers as men are. He’s sneaking into the world of women writers and readers by the back door because he realized he’s wrong and too cowardly to admit it.

    Liked by 2 people

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