Here at Bookish, we’re all about reading great books written by both men and women, despite a Western literary canon that often emphasizes the work of male authors. And we’re not the only ones: The #ReadWomen2014 movement encourages reading more works from female authors who may be unfairly overlooked.
Centuries ago, some female authors made the decision not to write under their own names, intentionally choosing pseudonyms that obscured or at least cast doubt on their identity and gender. Unfortunately, this practice persists today. Authors as famous as J.K. Rowling and Nora Roberts have chosen to use male or ambiguous pen names when making a break from their normal, or more popular, writing. Can we blame them? VIDA, an organization that focuses women in the literary arts, found that major literary magazines still favor male writers, and it’s certainly smart to play the system. On the other hand, women are powerful writers in their own right. We think they deserve full respect and recognition delivered straight to them, not a masculine mask. Hopefully movements like #ReadWomen2014 will encourage future female authors to stick true to their roots and bear their actual names proud and strong.
Joanne Rowling as Robert Galbraith
Joanne Rowling, author of the much-loved Harry Potter books, sort of has two pen names. J.K. Rowling, the name she uses on most of her novels, is partially fabricated: She has no middle name, and adopted the “K” at the request of her publisher. This makes it hard for first-time readers to determine Rowling’s gender. She got even trickier, however, when she released the thriller The Cuckoo’s Calling as Robert Galbraith. Rowling told The Guardian that she wanted “to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback” on the book. Fair enough, but we still think a female pen name would’ve worked just as well.
Louisa May Alcott as A.M. Barnard
Louisa May Alcott, author of the much-beloved Little Women, hid her identity with a pen name in some of her work, too. Alcott used the identity A.M. Barnard for her more sensational works such as Behind a Mask, Or, A Woman’s Power (we promise we didn’t make this up), which often focused on themes of revenge. While “A.M.” isn’t explicitly male, this intentionally vague name certainly played into the assumptions of readers who would’ve been less inclined or read something written by a woman. Considering that Alcott died in 1888, a full 32 years before women in the United States would be allowed to vote in national elections, it seems fair to assume that her work might’ve been received differently had readers known she was female.
Nora Roberts as J.D. Robb
Nora Roberts, the almost impossibly prolific author of more than 200 books (the vast majority of them bestsellers), sometimes writes under the name J.D. Robb; like Louisa May Alcott’s nom de plume; it’s conveniently gender-neutral. Roberts has said that using a pen name offered her a new challenge, and also allowed her opportunities to reach non-Nora Roberts readers. It also has the benefit of not oversaturating the market with even more of her romance novels. Like Rowling, though, we’d like to see Roberts (who is otherwise fairly outspoken about sexism) put a woman’s name—even if it isn’t her own—on all of her books.
The Brontë Sisters as Acton, Currer & Ellis Bell
The Brontë sisters, Anne, Charlotte, and Emily preserved their initials with these vaguely male-sounding pen names when they released their 1846 book of poems titled Poems by Acton, Currer & Ellis Bell. Charlotte later wrote that this was partially because the sisters knew that readers were likely to think less highly of a book of poems written by women. As was the case with Louisa May Alcott, this is sort of understandable: Women certainly were not treated as men’s equals in the mid-19th century, and the Brontë sisters’ reservations may have been justified.
Mary Ann Evans as George Eliot
You probably know her as George Eliot: Mary Ann Evans wrote several important novels in the 19th century—including Middlemarch, considered by many to be one of the most significant novels in the English language. Evans was fairly upfront about her reasons for adopting a pseudonym: She wanted to be taken seriously as a novelist, and didn’t want to be pigeonholed as someone who only wrote romances (as many women published during her lifetime were). Happily, revelations about the author’s gender don’t seem to have diminished the extremely positive critical consensus on Middlemarch.