Pen names

Fair warning, there’s some shit in here that might come off as sexist.  That’s not necessarily my intent, but I am writing generalizations about many female authors I’ve read.  If that shit pisses you off, keep reading and then leave me a nasty comment.  Nasty comments make me hard.

I just finished a fairly light-hearted book about zombies.  I love zombie books and this one had a promotion or something going where it was free, so I picked it up.

The book was pretty decent.  It did follow a fairly generic story line without any big twists or surprises, but it was entertaining enough that I finished it and considered buying the sequel ($2.99, nope).  What surprised me though, was that I was totally convinced the author was a woman, but when I hit the author page at the back there was a male name.  That threw me for a loop, there was no way this book was written by a dude.

First, I thought maybe this guy had just read WAY too many books written by women, their techniques just rubbed off on him… but then I thought about it some more and realized it was far more likely that the book was actually written by a woman but one who chose a male pen-name.  It would also explain why there was no photo on the author page, even though everything else about the book was fairly high quality.

Now, all of that leads us to two big questions:

1) Why am I so sure this was a female author?

2) Why would a female author choose a male pen name?

I don’t know if you know this, but men and women generally write in different styles.  There are actually algorithms that can be used that will predict an author’s gender with a very high degree of accuracy.  If I was going to break it down to ridiculous terms, I would say that generally men write more “right-now-action-y” and women tend to write “what-are-my-motivations-y”.  Men tend to write fairly straight forward story, whereas women tend to focus more deeply on the interactions between characters and the story moves slower.  If that makes sense.  Neither approach is “right”, they’re just different.

So, this particular zombie book, points towards being written by a female writer:

1) Female main character (not an absolute, but female authors are more likely to choose a strong female lead)

2) Lots of in depth inter-character relationships rather than action (not an absolute, but more often seen with female authors)

3) Romance played a large role in the inter-character relationships (yeah, definitely seen more often with female authors)

4) There’s a love triangle.  Two brothers, totally opposite, and she can’t choose between them.  (Sound familiar?  Yeah, the book uses a pretty standard formula for a love triangle that is very common in books written by women)

5) There’s a “magical”, “spiritual” side of the story.  It’s not just a zombie book, it’s a zombie & magic book.  (not absolute, but guys tend to focus on guns/martial arts vs. bad guys, female authors are far more likely to involve magic in some way.  To a degree, I think this is kind of a gender-power-balancing kind of thing.  Like they’re saying, you might be bigger and stronger than me, but that isn’t important because I can fuck you up with my mind)

If there were one or two of these things than I might have felt less certain, but all five of those points were major parts of the book so I was pretty confident that the writer was a woman.  Just for fun, I plugged a few chapters into one of the free, online gender-writer tests and got some interesting results.  When I tested this book, the first chapter came back as 58% probability that the writer was a woman.  The second chapter came back with 53% male.  That ambivalence is very strange to me.I’ve played with them before and they always had very high percentages for either male or female.   I haven’t yet seen a book where the test wasn’t pretty confident, one way or the other.

Ok, so I think that the writer is using a male pen-name, but if so, why?

The answer to that comes from several studies I’ve read about people and their reading habits.  There have been a number of studies on this that basically all said the same thing.  Women tend to read a higher percentage of books written by women, but the ratio is not that drastic.  On the other hand, men choose books that are almost entirely written by other men.  For most, this isn’t a conscious decision, or some kind of sexist notion, it’s just what they tend to do.    Most of the men in the studies didn’t even realize that’s what they were doing until they were questioned about recent book purchases.

So, if you were a woman that wanted to write books in a genre that is popular with men (ie. action, military thriller, zombies, etc.) you would have a fairly significant handicap, your name.  Men choose books written by men, if they are the primary readers in that genre a book written by a woman won’t be very popular.  But if that woman was using a male pen-name, handicap gone.  Or, if you wanted to flip the example around, a male writer that wanted to write romance would probably be better off using a female pen-name.  Tricky, tricky…

Also, this wouldn’t be the first time that a woman chose a male pen name.  Or, women that use only their initials (J.K. Rowling, anyone?).  History is dotted with plenty of other examples, here are a few:

J.K. Rowling wrote a crime thriller as Robert Galbraith.

Louisa May Alcott wrote as A.M. Barnard.

Nora Roberts wrote as J.D. Robb.

The Bronte sisters wrote as Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell.


So, how does gender affect your reading?


11 thoughts on “Pen names

  1. *insert witty sarcastic horrible comment here*

    To be honest I don’t give a shit who it’s written by long as I enjoyed the story 🙂

  2. 1. What was the name of the Zombie book? I want to check it out…
    2. This post is very interesting and definitely valid…which brings me to…
    3. I always thought if I was an author I would definitely make up a male pen name because A.) It’s cool and B.) You’re right…men read crap written by other men…it’s for some (highly strange) reason considered “less manly” to read books written by women.
    4. I’ve always thought Ann had a very direct way of writing unlike most women. …which is why I believe she has so many male followers (well that…and she showed her boobs) 🙂 So it’s interesting to me that you made THAT point as well…

      • Indeed…I’ve been considering showing my ass…because my boobs can’t compare to Ann’s but I definitely have a cuter ass than J.ID 😉 hahaha Just Joshin’

    • I’ll email you the book title if you really want it, I just didn’t want to post it publicly. And Ann definitely has a straightforward, unapologetic, unbashful approach to blogging that many male readers find refreshing. And she showed her tits.

    • You know, I just happened upon this set of comments and after laughing my pants off (not literally, although I understand why you might think so) I had that feeling like you get when others talk about you and you are standing. right. there. 🙂

      JBlondie, perhaps that’s why I was once accused by a blog reader of being a man. I never thought about my writing style before; now you also have me wondering whether I have more male or female readers. Hmm. But yeah, I always suspected the dudes read my posts every day in the (vain) hope that they will have another tit pic 😉

      And definitely, now that you opened the door, I’m expecting an ass post.

  3. Gender does not consciously influence my reading, but I do have more Romance novels written by women. Also, I’m currently considering a gender neutral / male pen name for both my horror and erotica work, yet I will publish my urban fantasy and other work under my true (female) identity.

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