Back in the nineteenth century, readers – men and women alike – began to discover and enjoy fiction by new novelists Currer Bell, Ellis Bell, Acton Bell and George Eliot. Male writers, you may well have assumed, but in fact these were the pen names of the Brontë sisters and Mary Ann Evans, so chosen to ensure they were taken seriously in the male-dominated field of literature.
Fast-forward to more recent times, and readers are confronted by covers on which the author’s name is deliberately gender-ambiguous. JK Rowling, of course, is the obvious example (but it’s notable that when she moved into writing crime thrillers, she stepped back in time some two hundred years and, like the Brontës and Evans, adopted a male nom de plume, Robert Galbraith).
It is not only female writers, though, who are opting for gender-ambiguous pen names. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article entitled ‘These Male Authors Don’t Mind if You Think They’re Women’. The article profiles male authors whose books have sold well under an ambiguous pseudonym. SJ Watson, for example, author of Before I Go to Sleep, is in fact Steve Watson, though his book is written from the first-person female perspective. His was one of the stand-out thrillers that launched the ‘Girl Who’ genre currently in vogue that is aimed at female readers.
In my genre, romance, male writers are under even more pressure to hide their gender. A 2014 Goodreads survey found that women read women; 80 per cent of a new female author’s audience is likely to be female. And yet women can also make the choice to be ambiguous; take EL James and JR Ward, for example.
Issues can emerge with using pen names to occlude gender, relating to discomfort in either the reader or the writer over lack of transparency and honesty. From the author’s point of view, it is one thing to choose to put a name on a book cover, but another to actually pretend to be that fictional person – to have Twitter conversations with readers under that name, for example. From the reader’s perspective, discovering that an author whose book they have enjoyed is not the gender they had assumed can be disconcerting. It can even feel like a betrayal – ‘It leads me to be suspicious of the writer,’ said one reader. ‘I just feel a little bit lied to.’
Book marketers insist gender-ambiguous pen names can make a difference. (Would JK Rowling have achieved her stratospheric success as Joanne? We can never know.) But clearly there is a down side to taking this marketing angle.
I am left wondering: should there even be a reason, in the twenty-first century, to consider concealing one’s gender? Should readers judge a fictional (or non-fictional) work based on the gender of its author?
In her 1847 book Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë wrote: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” Her heroine’s words, and perhaps her own longing – for she was not free then to write as herself; she had published as Currer Bell. All these years later, one has to ask: should writers today be free to write as themselves?
She’s the one: Five reasons I write in the third person
‘I had not intended to love him; the reader knows I had wrought hard to extirpate from my soul the germs of love there detected; and now, at the first renewed view of him, they spontaneously revived, great and strong! He made me love him without looking at me.’
So declares Jane Eyre in the eponymous novel by Charlotte Brontë. It is my favourite work of English literature, and in my teenage years, when I first began reading literature, it was one of the books that inspired me to want to be a novelist myself someday.
Yet, there is one aspect of Jane Eyre with which I never connected well: the first-person narration: ‘I had not intended… I had wrought… He made me love’. When I came to read French literature at university, I found I was entirely more comfortable reading novels like Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, in which Emma’s story is narrated in the third person.
I was stirred to consider this preference by a recent article in the Times Literary Supplement entitled ‘A brief history of the first person’ (http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/brief-history-first-person/). The author charts her personal journey from writing only in the first person, because the alternative felt ‘remote, false, a performance’, to struggling to so much as read a book written in the first person, let alone write in it. Interestingly, she describes the turning point as being when she became a mother and began telling stories to her child.
All of the books I have written are in the third person: I write ‘She entered the room’, not ‘I entered the room’. Here are the reasons I believe third-person narration works for my romance fiction:
1. I draw on a heritage of oral storytelling.
The third-person narrative is as old as time. Imagine ancestors at the fireside telling stories – fairy tales like Cinderella, Aladdin; the storyteller told the story in the third person. As a result, there is an intrinsic sense of comfort in being told (or reading) a story in which the narrator is not a part of the story.
As a little girl, I lived for story time, and for me that meant listening to stories. My governess would challenge me to come up with my own stories, and I did: so my first steps into storytelling were in the third person, and when I write now, it feels right and natural to tell a story in that way.
2. I like to explore multiple perspectives.
The first-person narrative allows the reader to get very close to the protagonist, to see the fictional world through her eyes. There is a limitation, however: the reader can only see through the heroine’s eyes.
In my fiction, I like to move occasionally into the hero’s point of view. It is important to me that he have a voice, a perspective on the story – and it allows the reader to see the heroine from another angle. Using an omniscient (all-seeing) narrator allows me to move about as I wish.
3. I want to have a bird’s eye view.
Readers of my fiction know that settings are very important in my novels. I like to set a scene and really transport my reader there. A heroine can’t achieve that; I need a narrator who knows all about the scene and can stand back and describe it.
4. My heroines are not extensions of myself.
When a writer writes ‘I’, the reader can quite naturally infer that ‘I’ means ‘I’! That is to say, if I write ‘I’ for my heroine, the reader assumes there is something (a lot, even) of myself, the writer, in that heroine; she is more personal.
In addition, over time heroines could blend together. To date, I have published five novels, each with a different heroine. I think had I written each of these books in the first person, it would have been harder to differentiate between the heroines. A reader working through all my novels may start to wonder, ‘Who is this “I”?’
5. A little emotional distance allows for breathing space.
I write epic, romantic fiction in which characters go on emotional journeys. Were I to write in the first person, I think my fiction could become claustrophobic; my reader could get quite overwhelmed by the strong emotions of the heroine. The third-person narration allows me to create just a little breathing space. Having said that, you may still need a fan to hand for the passionate scenes!
‘Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.’ So wrote satirist P. J. O’Rourke.
Of course, he was joking. We should read whatever we want to read! But I think this quotation touches on a very real discomfort in readers over being judged for reading choices.
Recently, reports have emerged of a new practice at airport security in the US. The Bookseller in the UK reported: ‘Security staff in US airports have reportedly been demanding passengers clear all the reading material out of their hand luggage into a separate bin during safety searches so that staff can search for items made of paper.’
The argument for the practice – which will likely be rolled out across all US airports – is understandable. Carry-on bags are often full of items, and analysts at X-ray machines can struggle to see past books. But passengers have not taken kindly to having to throw their books into a bin and then watch as security officials leaf through the pages.
The American Civil Liberties Union has publicly raised concerns, outlining the ‘long history of special legal protection for the privacy of one’s reading habits in the United States’ (full details are at https://www.aclu.org/blog/free-future/new-tsa-policy-may-lead-increased-scrutiny-reading-material).
Reading privacy isn’t a new issue. Since the rise of e-readers, for example, concerned readers have been questioning how much data is being collected on reading choices and habits. The Electronic Frontier Foundation reported on this back in 2012 in ‘Who’s Tracking Your Reading Habits? An E-Book Buyer’s Guide to Privacy’. Their conclusion: ‘reading e-books means giving up more privacy than browsing through a physical bookstore or library, or reading a paper book in your own home’.
In whatever area this issue crops up, one thing is clear: readers do not like to have their privacy invaded.
What are you reading? It’s a common enough question. But are you always happy to answer that question honestly? Let me put it another way: can a reader always be confident in any situation that he or she will not be judged for what he or she is reading?
Take the 50 Shades series of books when they were at the height of their popularity. On London trains at rush hour, how many people were reading these ‘The Next Big Thing’ books? Plenty, I am sure. Some were holding up paperbacks, happy to let other commuters see what they were reading. Others, though, weren’t prepared to read erotica in public, and so they read on an e-reader – quietly, privately.
It is easy to say, ‘We should read what we want, when we want, and be “out and proud” about our choices.’ But life isn’t so black and white. Whether we like it or not, judgements are made. (At the airport, just imagine the reaction at Security when it emerges a traveller is reading a thriller about terrorism.)
Novelist Siri Hustvedt wrote, ‘Reading is a private pursuit; one that takes place behind closed doors.’ I agree that it is a reader’s right to read in this way. By all means, readers may choose to share books they have read and discuss them publicly. But a reader is entirely free to read without an audience.
Ultimately, I think a reader should never be compelled to answer that intrusive question: What are you reading?
I love books. I love to browse books, choose books, purchase books, collect books – and, of course, read books!
If, like me, you are a bibliophile, you will know well the happiness a book can bring: finding a hidden treasure in a second-hand bookstore, eagerly buying your favourite author’s new novel on publication day, simply holding a book in your hands and using it as a magic portal into a story world. For me, though, the greatest happiness of all is not to be found in holding a book in my own hands, but in passing one to another.
Giving books, quite simply, is a beautiful act. Soul-stirring. Life-affirming. Joy-creating.
Many people, myself included, enjoy choosing books to give as presents for friends and loved ones for occasions like birthdays and Christmas. A book is a thoughtful gift, after all, and choosing the right one means the giver has the perfect excuse to spend an hour (or more!) in a bookstore.
But increasingly book-lovers are going a step further, and finding ever more fun and creative ways to gift books.
What’s the best gift of all? A surprise gift. Imagine walking through a park on a sunny summer’s day, when your eye catches something colourful amid the green leaves of a tree. You go up on tiptoes to investigate and discover a book – a novel, wrapped up in green ribbon. Intrigued, you reach up and take down the book. On the cover you see a little sticker on which is a picture of a book with wings and, beneath, a gentle instruction: ‘Take this book, read it, and leave it for the next person to enjoy.’ You’ve just received a gift from a Book Fairy.
The Book Fairies (http://ibelieveinbookfairies.com/) are a group of book-lovers all over the world who leave books for people to find. Currently, there are 5,000 people sharing copies across 100 countries. Anyone can be a book fairy; all you do is pop on an instruction sticker (available inexpensively and in various languages from the Book Fairies website) and then leave the book someplace it will be discovered. Many Book Fairies post Instagram pictures of their gifts in situ, as a clue.
The Book Fairies grew out of Books on the Underground (http://booksontheunderground.co.uk/), which works in the same way: each week, around 150 free books are left on the London Underground system, in stations and on trains, for travellers to enjoy. (New York has its own version, Books on the Subway: https://www.booksonthesubway.com/.)
A key part of the concept is that whoever receives a free book eventually passes this book on to another reader, so theoretically these free books should remain in constant circulation, turning public spaces into libraries. The exchange principle draws on the ever-popular Little Free Libraries scheme (https://littlefreelibrary.org/), which originated in the US, in which readers are able to access micro-libraries in all sorts of places, donating a book in exchange for taking one.
What all of these programmes have in common is that they are run by volunteers, simply for the love of books. They want to promote reading and to widen access to books, especially important books; last week, for example, actress Emma Watson donned her Book Fairy hat and hid 100 copies of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in Paris.
Most of all, though, book givers want to bring a ray of sunshine to a fellow reader’s day. Giving a book – even to a stranger you will never meet – has a fabulous feel-good factor, because of the goodwill behind the gesture. As the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote: ‘A gift consists not in what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer.’
Ask yourself this: what would your life be like without love stories? No romance novels. No romantic TV series or movies. No daydreaming, even. How would you feel?
I know that I would be! Since I read my first romantic fairy-tale as a young child, I’ve been in love with love stories. Romances make me feel wonderful: uplifted, comforted, dreamy, inspired, hopeful.
According to recent research by the University of Oxford, a romantic like me may be addicted to love, and so if I were to be cut off from romance, I would experience the feelings of withdrawal.
The Oxford English Dictionary offers two definitions for the word ‘addicted’:
- Physically and mentally dependent on a particular substance
- (informal) Enthusiastically devoted to a particular thing or activity
Of course, those of us who adore romance stories consider ourselves in the latter category. Certainly I am ‘enthusiastically devoted’ to dreaming, writing and reading romance.
But could one cross the line into being ‘dependent’ on romance stories?
The University of Oxford study is entitled: ‘Addicted to love: What is love addiction and when should it be treated?’ The researchers set out to consider how love may be viewed as an addition:
‘These phenomena—including cycles of alternating ecstasy and despair, desperate longing, and the extreme and sometimes damaging thoughts and behaviors that can follow from love’s loss—bear a resemblance to analogous phenomena associated with more “conventional” addictions like those for drugs, alcohol, or gambling.’ (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5378292/)
The New York Post entitled its article on this study ‘There’s a dark side to being a hopeless romantic’ (http://nypost.com/2017/05/10/theres-a-dark-side-to-being-a-hopeless-romantic/). The point is that addictive love can disrupt daily life and have a significant impact on mood and personal growth.
Can an ‘addiction’ to romance stories have the same damaging effect?
I am reminded of Mrs Stuart in Louisa May Alcott’s 1873 novel Work: A Story of Experience. Upon discovering a room ablaze and a servant just standing there and laughing, she exclaims:
‘She must go, Horatio, she must go! I cannot have my nerves shattered by such dreadful scenes. She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain.’
Can romance books turn your brain? Perhaps, if you were to let them. Remember the two definitions of addicted: while there is nothing at all wrong with being ‘addicted’ to romance stories in the sense that you are enthusiastically devoted to them, it is not ideal to be dependent on them, to become so devoted to the romance genre that you confuse fiction for reality.
Any ‘hopeless romantic’ knows, deep down, that while they can completely surrender as they read, giving themselves up to romance, at some point they must close the book. They re-enter a world in which romance is not always quite as readily available and sublimely magical as on the pages of a book (or on the big screen). However, they re-enter that world uplifted, comforted, dreamy, inspired and hopeful.
The aim, then, with romance: be enthusiastically devoted. Always.