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?
Depending on where you are in the world, a café latte from a chain like Starbucks is likely to cost you in the region of £3/$4. Wherever you are in the world, you can absolutely buy all kinds of books for less than that.
Cheap books are available in various formats and from various sellers:
* Second-hand books sold offline and online
* Discounted books sold in deals at major retailers such as supermarkets
* Heavily discounted books sold by book clubs and discount outlets
* Heavily discounted ebooks (sold for far less than the print-book price)
These cheap deals are excellent news for readers. They can be good news for authors too, in the sense that any sale of a book means they have reached a reader. However, in terms of the author earning what they deserve for their creative work, so-called ‘bargain books’ can be bad news.
In the UK, the Society of Authors is currently running a campaign called ‘Fair Reading’, which aims to ‘ensure that a good deal for the reader is also a fair deal for the author’ (see http://www.societyofauthors.org/Where-We-Stand/Fair-reading). The campaign is focusing on high discounting of books.
Did you know that Amazon is changing the way it sells books? It has always been the case that if you buy a book on Amazon, you are sold a book stocked by Amazon – so Amazon pays the publisher for that book, who in turn pays the author a royalty. In the US, however (and in the UK soon), pressing that ‘buy’ button on Amazon may well mean you are not buying a book supplied to Amazon by the publisher, but a book from a third-party supplier.
The book is second-hand and heavily discounted (often to a mere penny or cent!). Second-hand does not necessarily mean used, though; it can be new and unread. Publishers often print two versions of a book: the quality one intended for sale in bookshops (for which the author earns a decent royalty per sale), and a cheaper run that is not intended for regular buyers but for heavily discounted sales like those via book clubs (for which the author earns but a penny or two per sale). According to the Guardian, ‘it is believed that large quantities are being dumped on the mainstream market to be sold as if they are secondhand – which would explain how paperback editions appear for sale long before they are available to bookshops’ (https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/may/17/secondhand-book-sales-authors-cheap).
The major issue here is the bottom line for the author. An author earns around seven to ten per cent of a standard sale. But on these third-party sales, the author earns nothing. So when you click ‘buy’ on an Amazon page to purchase a book, you are not supporting the author at all.
This is just one of several book-pricing issues that exist in publishing, another obvious one being ebook pricing. It is the underlying principle here that most interests me: how much should a book be worth?
The book/coffee price comparison is becoming a common one. On the Society of Authors blog (http://www.societyofauthors.org/News/Blogs/James-Mayhew/November-2016/James-Mayhew-Fair-Trade-for-Authors), James Mayhew writes: ‘for the people who can afford £3 on a daily latte or magazine, or who happily spend £6 for a cinema ticket, should books be just £1? This is about far more than my personal return on sales. It is about the symbolic devaluing of books.’
I agree entirely, and I ask:
* How much more easily do we buy a coffee than a book – and how much more quickly do we consume it?
* How many coffees do we buy per year versus books?
* Do we scruitinise the cost of a book more than the cost of a coffee?
* Does a few pounds or dollars feel perfectly reasonable for some hot milk, water and coffee beans, and yet not so reasonable for hundreds of bound (or electronic) pages on which are words formed by many, many hours of work, and so much dedication, skill and artistry?
* Should, in fact, a book cost more than a coffee?
I dreamed of being an author from a very young age – from the day I first understood how the many books on my parents’ shelves were created and formed the idea that someday I could do that myself.
In those days, to be an author was to be someone who wrote books. It was that simple. Other than dealing with your publisher and engaging in the occasional marketing activity, such as a book-signing event or penning an article for the press, the author’s job was simple: write the next book.
That was my dream job. All I ever wanted to do was write books, many books!
Fast-forward to 2012, and I finally felt ready to seek a publisher for my debut novel, Burning Embers – a book that in fact I began writing in my twenties, but shelved while raising my children and running my business. I was excited that finally I would be living the long-cherished dream of being an author.
But wait… the author job description had changed! No longer could an author just focus on writing books, it seemed. ‘Facebook,’ said my publisher. ‘A blog. Twitter. Goodreads. Instagram. Tumblr. Pinterest. Google-Plus. You must be out there, all the time, making connections, marketing your fiction.’
There was quite a learning curve for me, as I’m sure you can imagine, but soon I did as all authors today must do: I settled into a way of ‘being out there’ that works for me. I blog regularly on topics that interest me and relate to my fiction, and I post once or twice a day on Facebook and Twitter, where I connect with fellow authors and readers. I limit my ‘out there’ work to this, and am careful to ensure that I spend no more than one hour a day on such activities, because for me my novel writing must always come first.
This is what works for me, but all authors are different, and it strikes me that ‘being out there’ is a source of friction for writers. Last week, for example, British writer Joanna Trollope whipped up something of a frenzy by criticising JK Rowling’s ‘insatiable need and desire to be out there all the time… that’s entirely driven by [her] ego’. She was referring to Rowling creating a mass following on Twitter and tweeting several times a day.
People were quick to jump to JK Rowling’s defence and point out that she is a writer who has adapted very well to modern means of marketing and communication. A Radio Times reaction piece praised Rowling for having ‘truly discovered how to make her newest content sing’ on the internet.
While I do admire JK Rowling’s ability to be ‘out there’ so much, I wonder how that affects her ability to write the next book – which, to my mind, is still the author’s job.
In addition, I think Joanna Trollope made some points that are worth consideration. She said ‘she deliberately chose to stay away from social media because she expressed everything she wanted to in her books’ (source: the Guardian). I have a lot of respect for this approach. It reminds me of Italian author Elena Ferrante, who was determined to be anonymous. She wrote to her publisher before her first book was published: ‘I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient.’ (For more on this story, see my article ‘Thoughts on the exposure of Elena Ferrante’). I am also reminded of novelist Jean Rhys, who wrote: ‘All of a writer that matters is in the book or books. It is idiotic to be curious about the person.’
Joanna Trollope also expressed concern over the future of the author profession: ‘It’s so depressing to think that aspiring authors will look at famous writers with millions of followers, and think that that is how you have to operate.’ I agree that is not how you have to operate as an author. You may do; you may not – but it is a choice, and you are perfectly entitled to make it for yourself.
The key, I think, is to be careful not to stray far from your own definition of ‘author’. For me, being an author means always writing the next book, and so that is what I choose to do with the majority of my time. But in today’s world, no writer need be isolated, and that is where I find this new world of social media really comes into its own. It’s wonderful to connect to like-minded people – such as yourself. So thank you for reading my post today. Now, I had better get on with my novel-in-progress…
Here is a dictionary definition of the word ‘romance’: a feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love; a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life. And here is a definition of romance when it is used with relation to a story: a book or film dealing with love in a sentimental or idealised way.
These definitions are essential, I think, when it comes to the categorisation of books. My own books are romance novels. They are characterised by the excitement and mystery associated with love, and they are fantasies, removed from everyday life. They are sentimental, and in a sense they are idealised – but not to the point where they are unrealistic.
The key to romance is that the reader can escape their everyday life into a story world that is beautiful and moving (sentimental, idealised) but also vivid and believable. There is a line to be drawn, however, in true romance when it comes to realism. It is not mysterious and exciting and idealised and remote from everyday life for a romance to end in separation, especially that wrought by death.
Gone with the Wind is popularly regarded as one of the best novels of the last century – and I agree. But is it, as many people class it, a romance novel? I don’t agree that it is characterised by a ‘remoteness from everyday life’; I think much of the power of the book lies in its realism. Margaret Mitchell did not write a happy-ever-after ending for her heroine: Rhett leaves Scarlett. The author herself did not know what would have happened to her characters after the book’s ending; she told Yank magazine in 1945, ‘For all I know, Rhett may have found someone else who was less – difficult.’
There is a tendency to categorise all kinds of books as romances simply because within the overarching story there is a story of two characters falling in love. That love story may be only a small part of the whole; it may be an unhealthy kind of love (obsessive, for example); it may well end badly for one or both parties.
Consider some of ‘the greatest love stories’, those of Heathcliff and Cathy, Romeo and Juliet, Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky, Quasimodo and Esmeralda. Tragedies, all of them. Romantic, absolutely, in places; but romantic overall, in the big picture?
Why categorise so many books as romances when they are entrenched in realism and do not ‘deal with love in a sentimental or idealised way’? Because we lack genres in which to place these books. ‘Women’s literature’ just doesn’t adequately convey the content of many books (and it unfairly matches gender to novel; who is to say a man can’t read a book in which love features?).
Does it even matter? For readers like me, the answer is ‘yes’, because when I read a romance I expect romance – not to have my heartbroken by an unhappy ending. That ending may be clever and gritty and powerful, but it’s not romantic: romance is by definition idealised to some degree.
My own books are romance novels, but because they are mixed in among so many different kinds of books in the genre, I wonder how many readers know what to expect when they choose one of my novels to read: do they expect my heroine to end up having loved and lost?
What we need, I think, is more sub-genres within the romance genre, to provide readers with clear, honest information that will help them determine whether a book is to their taste. No one likes spoilers, of course, but there are romance readers who, when suitably informed, will choose not to read a book with harrowing content and a non-romantic ending. (In the same vein, all readers have their own preference when it comes to sexual content: ‘clean’ romance books may be marketed as such, but there is a vast grey area between that and ‘erotic fiction’.)
What do you think of genre classifications? Do they signpost sufficiently to ensure that you enjoy the books you choose? What new sub-genres would you introduce if you could, to help you and other readers find (and avoid) particular kinds and styles of novels? Do you think genres should be formalised rather than dictated by booksellers? I would love to hear your thoughts.
‘Writers are not just people who sit down and write. They hazard themselves. Every time you compose a book your composition of yourself is at stake.’
So wrote American novelist, editor and professor E.L. Doctorow. His is just one of many quotations that convey how hard it is to write. Another that springs at once to mind is this, by Ernest Hemingway:
‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’
And this, from George Orwell’s essay ‘Why I Write’:
‘Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.’
If you write for yourself alone, in notebooks you ‘fill with the breathings of your heart’ and then lock away or burn, to be seen by no one, then there is no bleeding; writing is a beautiful, calm, affirming pastime. But if, as do many writers, you write with the expectation of the words being read… then with every word you write you know that you are hazarding yourself, and that takes courage and steel.
Why then, you may ask – as do all writers at one time or another – does a writer write? Why hazard yourself, why bleed, why be driven by a demon?
Each writer has their own answer to this question. Mine lies in my childhood.
I grew up surrounded by books, brought up by parents who had a great deal of respect for the written word and read with me. My grandmother was a published author of poetry, and my father published a book about the history of our family. I don’t recall wishing to follow in their footsteps; it just seemed natural to me, once I discovered the joy of writing, that the product would be words-on-paper to be shared.
I was in my early teens when I first shared a story. At my very strict convent school the nuns expected total focus; I, conversely, was a dreamer, and while I loved language and literature classes, I was far more interested in zoning out in maths class and escaping into a fantasy world. My governess, Zula, who had been with our family since I was very young, had instilled in me a love for oral storytelling – fairy tales, especially – and consequently, over the years I practised that with her, I had become adept at slipping out of this reality into another of my making. Soon, though, daydreaming was not enough; I wanted to share the story in my mind. It was the most natural progression in the world for me to pick up a pen and write.
I shared that first story – a romantic fairy tale, of course – with my closest friends. They enjoyed it so much that I wrote another, and another. Soon my stories were being circulated around the class. Girls would come to me and tell me what they thought of this hero or that heroine, how they enjoyed this aspect of the plot or being transported to that fantasy place. Their words spurred me on to keep writing, to meet the demand I had inadvertently created.
It was many years later, in the far tougher, more cynical adult world, that I shared my first novel, Burning Embers, through publication. In fact, that novel had existed on paper for quite some years before 2012, when I published it; I wrote it in French initially, and then translated it into English, and then edited it… and then put it away for a good while I met the demands of motherhood and business.
It was my children, eventually, now grown who convinced me to take the step of publishing my work. I had shared my writing with my family, but no one else. When I first considered that idea, considered hazarding myself, I was unsure. But as the idea settled in my mind, I found I kept thinking about the girls at school – how I’d felt when they clamoured for the next story, fought over who got to read the current one next; how they cried at the sad parts and smiled at the happy parts and fell in love right along with my characters; how my writing gave them something – an escape from daily life into a colourful, romantic, beautiful world. Those girls were my very first readers: I hazarded myself with them, and was rewarded for my courage. I think that was meaningful, the foundation for me as a writer – if I so choose.
The rest, as they say, is history. I published Burning Embers, and four more books since then. Do I always find it easy to sit down at the ‘typewriter’ and bleed? Not at all. But when a reader tells me they have been swept away by my writing, that it brought them pleasure and inspired them to dream, then it is worth every drop of blood.
I owe much to my teenage classmates back in time, and I owe so very much to my loyal readers, who make me want to keep writing another book, and another… and another.