Edit to add: I wrote this post a few years ago, and link back to it whenever I see discussions around “does it really matter if an author is X?” going around.
That discussion about pseudonyms is happening again.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, the briefest version is this: once again, for what feels like the millionth time, it turns out there’s another female author who writes under a male pseudonym while writing m/m fiction (and/or gay fiction, which is another huge debate I won’t get into with this post, I don’t think).
Now, for the most part, the vast majority of feedback has been, simply put: Oh, who cares? I read the book for the content, not for the gender of the author. If the book is good, it doesn’t matter.
Do I agree? Yes.
And, deep breath, also no.
Now, please, understand. There’s a lot more to it than that statement, and I want to draw a very important divide between a pseudonym and an identity. I also want to talk a little bit about appropriation, about minorities (visible and nay), and – hopefully – make some sense in the process about why I both agree and disagree with shrugging off all instances of women-writing-as-men-while-writing-about-gays on the sole merit of the content.
I’m actually going to start outside of the m/m genre completely, and bring up two things I think are somewhat parallel to the discussion. First, Rachel Dolezal; and second, Yi-Fen Chou.
You’ve likely heard of the first. Rachel Dolezal is a woman whose parents “outed” her as not black. She worked as the president of a local chapter of the NAACP, and reaction to her outing was divided. Understand, she had been hired at events to speak about her experience as a black woman. To quote wikipedia: “Dolezal’s critics contend that she has committed cultural appropriation and fraud; Dolezal and her supporters contend that her racial identity is genuine, although not based on biology or ancestry.”
The second, unless you’re much into poetry or follow diversity discussions, might have slid under your radar. Basically, Yi-Fen Chou was a pseudonym (and falsely presented biographical detail) put forth by a poet accepted for The Best American Poetry 2015 who turned out to not be of Asian descent at all, and instead a white guy who’d figured this increased his chance of publication. And, as the editor himself points out, “in keeping the poem, I am quite aware that I am also committing an injustice against poets of color, and against Chinese and Asian poets in particular.”
Now, in these cases, I’m going to take what might be a very unpopular opinion and say that, yes, both these folks did indeed commit cultural appropriation and fraud. They took facets of an identity that was not theirs to leverage what comes with that identity to their advantage.
But that’s not a pseudonym.
The way I think most people use pseudonyms is basically branding. The first time I wrote erotica, I considered a pseudonym, but I decided not to. I don’t regret that, but a lot of authors do use a different name to differentiate between different genres or themes. Having a name for erotica different from romance can be a really smart idea if your romances, say, are super-cozy and very fade-to-black. You don’t want a reader to pick up your super-smutty BDSM book and freak out when they they think they’re getting another super-cozy fade-to-black romance. Similarly, authors will sometimes do the same thing when they’re crossing from romance into mystery, or chick-lit into thrillers, or… well, you get the idea. The author bios might be a wee bit fantastical, author photos might have different angles or outfits, but it’s the same person. Many of them will even point out the other names the author writes under – which does open up readers to crossover, but without the jarring impact of “Woah! BDSM!” like in my example.
Pseudonyms can also be for group authors – be it Frank Dixon or Carolyn Keene – and again, that’s about branding (and, frankly, shelving the darned books). One of my favourite authors, Timothy James Beck, is actually four authors working together.
Those situations are what I’d happily consign to the “shrug and read” response to pseudonyms. It doesn’t matter, right? The book is what the book is, and the names used aren’t anything more than a way to shelve the book alphabetically.
I’d say the same for the vast majority of women authors who write under male pseudonyms, and having worked at a bookstore for twenty years, I also know the inherent misogyny in a huge chunk of the reading public. Believe me, I’ve had more than enough readers tell me, “Oh, I don’t read women mystery authors, they’re just not very good,” and then pick up the next P.D. James when I recommend it (for example), because it’s not obvious a woman wrote it to their casual and stupid misogynist ears. I also delighted in letting them know they’d read a woman author the next time I saw them, but maybe that’s just me being petty and trying to crusade just a little bit. I also know the reverse occurs in the romance section, where male authors writing straight romances use female pseudonyms for more or less the same reason (though, in general, I found most women readers were far less likely to care whether or not an author in most sections was male or female, though even there I can think of exceptions, like erotica).
So, when I see an m/m author with a male name or initials, I don’t much care. I’m also likely to assume – after decades in bookselling – that nearly any contemporary name that begins with initials is probably a woman. I have zero stats to back that up – like I said, it’s an assumption. And, again, I don’t much care. I want to read the story. I do pay attention to whether the book is marketed as m/m romance or gay romance, as I’ve generally come to expect something different from the two labels, but I don’t care about the gender of the author much.
Let me make that clearer: I do not believe the quality of writing in any genre has anything to do with gender. I also think that argument gets conflated with the notion of pseudonyms in the world of m/m or gay writing, and I think it’s a crap argument. Elizabeth Lister, Kayleigh Malcolm, Rebekah Weatherspoon… I could go on and on listing awesome women who write fantastic queer characters. That’s what authors do. Authors write. They can attempt to write any voice, any setting, any character. Whether or not they do it well doesn’t depend on their gender, it depends on how hard they work. Is it easier for me to write a character that is like me? For sure. Does that mean I should only write those characters? Nope. Not at all.
Now, way back at the beginning, I said I agreed and didn’t agree with giving any thought to whether or not a male pseudonym belonged to a female author in the m/m or gay fiction world.
There’s pseudonym, and then there’s identity.
There are instances I know of where an author used a male pseudonym, or adopted the bio of a gay man, or even sent a man to an author appearance to take the place of that author. There was also a piece where an author claiming a gay male identity did a lengthy Q&A interview piece about why “he” chose not to use condoms in the age of HIV/AIDS.
In those instances a line is crossed. That’s claiming an identity. That’s not a brand, or making a distinction between different genres, or just not having an author photo and dodging pronouns.
When an author presents themselves as a member of a different culture, minority, or oppressed group, they’ve taken a voice that belongs to that oppressed or silenced group. They are now using a brand based on a projected falsity.
Put as kindly as possible, that’s problematic. It’s appropriation. It’s dismissive, and is like “playing” at being a culture without suffering any of the negative realities of belonging to that culture and history. It also adds a kind of authenticity to anything said outside the prose. If someone who has claimed this gay male identity posts a review of another book and speaks personally about how real or unreal the gay culture represented in the book being reviewed, there’s a weight given to those words. Weigh in on a debate about equality under that identity? You are speaking with a voice that – frankly – hasn’t been earned.
Now, the thing about queer culture that’s different from a lot of other cultures is that many of us can “pass,” and that there’s usually no inherited continuance. It’s not the same as race (though I’d also point out that intersections exist), but if I draw an imperfect parallel, were I to craft a pseudonym of, say, a black man, and used that voice online – even if I thought I was saying good things and fighting the right causes and reviewing books positively – I do not have the right – because I do not have the life experience to claim the voice of a black man. I really don’t think anyone would argue with me about that, and yet when this situation arises with women adopting gay male personas as writers – and then blogging, reviewing, and otherwise using that voice – I don’t see much of a difference.
Now, I hope I’m being very clear about some key things. I absolutely don’t think women can’t write m/m or gay fiction (please re-read that as many times as you need to believe me, okay?) I also don’t see anything wrong with using a pseudonym. I don’t even think there’s anything inherently off about using a pseudonym that isn’t aligned with the gender you identify with. But if you’re adopting a whole persona and identity from a culture – be it a race, sexual orientation, gender, neurotype or any other group to which you don’t belong – and you choose to speak from that role, you’re stepping over a line.
Let me offer up one last way to think about it. I’m a white gay man. If I write a YA book where the main characters are all deaf or hard of hearing, you bet your butt I’m going to do a tonne of research, and you bet I’m going to communicate with as many deaf or hard of hearing people as I can. I’m also probably still going to make mistakes, though I would do my damnedest not to. Now, let’s say that book gets an amazing response and something awesome happens: I get listed for an award. Awesome, right? Yes. Totally.
Now let’s pretend that since I was releasing a YA book for the first time that I used a pseudonym, so my YA author name wasn’t linked to the same author name I have for gay erotica. I would probably do that. And let’s say I decide to market that book to as many deaf and hard of hearing organizations as I can.
In a moment of stupidity, I decide to present that pseudonym as a deaf man. Now I’m in trouble. Anything this persona now says has an authority that isn’t real, from a culture that is very real. I’ve screwed up. Now let’s say that award I was talking about isn’t just an award for a YA novel, or even an award for a YA novel featuring characters with disabilities. No, it’s an award for a debut author who has a disability.
I’d turn that down in a heartbeat. Same as if I’d written under a female pseudonym and somehow managed to get nominated for a Bailey’s Woman’s Prize.
After using that example, I feel like I need to clarify that I’m not talking about the Lambda Literary Awards here specifically because the Lammies are awarded for content, not the orientation of the author, but the Betty Berzon Emerging Writer Award, the Jim Duggins Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize and the Pioneer Award do take the queerness of the author as necessary for consideration.
It doesn’t take winning an award, though, to see where this gets problematic. If I present myself as something I am not, I don’t have the life experience to back up the opinions I am presenting as belonging to a group that already has to fight to be heard. As a white guy – even though I’m queer – one of the things I try to do as much as I can is “pass the mic” to those who have less voice than I do. If I start to “speak” as a woman, or as a person of colour, or as though I were transgender, I am doing active damage. I am not helping – I am silencing. I am taking voice, not giving it.
There’s also the reader’s choices. One of the things a reader can do as a consumer to support voices fighting for air time is to actively seek out and purchase works by those voices. In my own personal reading, one of the things I try to do is to ensure I’m reading diversely – I’ve been consciously trying to go out of my way to find books written by authors of colour, and review them, for example. I also find books written by trans authors. My support of voices – even just as one reader, even just a wee bit – helps combat a mainstream publishing where authors are underrepresented by a system that’s biased to the white, cis, and male voice. It also steers and reinforces the narrative of what kind of story sells, and reinforces representation that may well drift away from the authentic. There are nuances that are easily missed when using a voice that is not your own.
Finding out an author I chose to support wasn’t who they said they were, when I was specifically trying to put support into a specific voice? That’s not the kind of vibe I imagine a writer ever wants to give their reader.
I realize this post is super-long. I probably TL;DR’d it a bit. And I really hope I didn’t do the one thing I’m most afraid I might have done, which is somehow give you the impression I think authors shouldn’t write characters that aren’t like them. All I wanted to do was spark some thought about what it can mean when an author takes a pseudonym further than a very basic brand – especially when that brand steps into an oppressed culture of any kind.