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Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith is a Research Fellow in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University and will take up an Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Fellowship in mid-2015. Michelle has published opinion pieces in the Age, the Washington Post, New Statesman, and The Drum and has been interviewed on numerous radio and television programmes.

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The Evolution of Female Pen-Names from Currer Bell to J.K. Rowling

the first quarrelIn August author Catherine Nichols went public with her account of sending her novel manuscript to literary agents under a male pseudonym. A writing sample sent to 50 agents in her own name resulted in only two manuscript requests. Seventeen out of 50 agents requested the same materials from “George Leyer”.

Were the agents exhibiting a subconscious gender bias that assumes the superiority of male authors? Or were they responding to the practicalities of a reviewing culture and audience that can overlook or even reject women’s literature?

Women’s fiction is reviewed less often than men’s in major publications. Even though women buy two-thirds of all books sold in the UK, they are much less likely to be reviewing books in male-dominated literary magazines.

And some audiences, such as young boys, are presumed to be entirely unwilling to read books written by women. J.K. Rowling’s publisher felt that an obviously female name like “Joanne” would dissuade boys from reading the debut Harry Potter novel.

The unpublished Rowling was simply happy to be published and said in an interview that “they could have called me Enid Snodgrass”. But Enid Snodgrass would have had the same sales handicap as Joanne Rowling—a woman’s name.

Most discussions of contemporary women writers who have adopted male pseudonyms or initials to mask their sex draw connections between these writers and a long line of literary women, such as the Bronte sisters and George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), who have published under assumed names.

What is less recognised is that the cultural reasons behind women writers concealing their names have shifted dramatically since the nineteenth century.

Today female names vanish to avoid industry and reader perceptions of what women’s fiction is like. Historically, in the British tradition, female names were hidden because of the perceived inappropriateness of women writing novels. To understand this difference, it is important to know that the very act of reading novels was heavily policed for girls and women in the nineteenth century.

In The Woman Reader, Kate Flint shows how girls’ and women’s reading, especially of material deemed frivolous or escapist, was a subject of great public concern and debate. Any novel reading that might detract from a woman’s role as a wife and mother within the home was perceived as a threat to the very foundation of society.

Likewise, women authors challenged expectations of women’s domestic and maternal roles. Budding writer Charlotte Brontë received the following comments in a discouraging letter from English poet laureate Robert Southey in 1837:

Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are you will be less eager for celebrity.

Jane Austen published her first novel in 1811. The four novels that were published during her lifetime appeared anonymously, as were those of many early women writers. Although women who wrote educative or didactic fiction, such as Maria Edgeworth, or less respected genres such as the Gothic romance, as in the case of Ann Radcliffe, were not similarly compelled to hide their gender or identity.

From the twentieth century onwards, women novelists’ use of pseudonyms seems to have acquired a more focused purpose: to avoid pre-judgement of women’s fiction as inferior. V.S. Naipaul has embarrassingly said that no woman writer is his equal and that “within a paragraph or two” he knows whether a work “is by a woman or not”.

Naipaul might have found a friend in Henry Lawson. Lawson read Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career in manuscript form and wrote to Franklin eagerly: “Will you write and tell me what you really are? Man or woman?” When the novel was published in 1901, in his preface Lawson rewrites history: “I hadn’t read three pages when I saw what you will no doubt see at once — that the story had been written by a girl”.

The most enduring fictions of literary history hold that a woman writer’s voice is readily detectable and less perceptive and sophisticated than a man’s. These ideas buttress more recent views about narratives by women about girls’ and women being of interest to female readers only.

The use of a male pseudonym or ambiguous initials removes the gender prejudiced lens through which much women’s fiction is viewed. Yet it does not help to transform that prejudice as it is exhibited in literary magazines and reader “preferences” in certain genres of fiction.

As the majority of books are read by women, there must be a way for us to influence the publishing industry and reviewing practices that shape literary culture.

Reposted from The Conversation under a CC license

The Conversation

Sex and Other Reasons Why We Ban Books for Young People

into the riverA prize-winning New Zealand novel for teenagers was effectively banned earlier this year because of complaints from Christian lobby group Family First. After the decision by the country’s Film and Literature Board of Review, Bruce Dawe’s Into the River was subject to an interim ban that prohibited its supply, display, and distribution (the ban was subsequently lifted).

Into the River was the first book to be banned since the current law was enacted in 1993. The novel confronts important subjects like bullying and racism through its narrative about a Maori boy. As the winner of the 2013 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards, it is in some respects a surprising target for censors.

Into the River has been classified in several different ways. It was initially judged suitable for audiences over 16, then received an R14 classification at the beginning of 2014 (making it an offence to supply the book to a child younger than 14), which was overturned in September.

On making the R14 determination, the Board of Review acknowledged the book’s “useful social purpose”. The Board concluded it was “likely to educate and inform young adults about the potentially negative consequences that can follow from involvement in casual sex, underage drinking, drug taking, crime, violence and bullying”.

Nevertheless, the Board felt that younger readers without a sufficient “level of maturity” were at real risk of being shocked by “powerful and disturbing scenes”.

In 2013, Family First sought an R18 classification and shrink-wrap covering because of the book’s sexual content, representation of paedophilia and drug taking, and use of swear words. Leader Bob McCroskie must have been busy with the search function on an ebook, as he noted that “it’s a book that’s got the c-word nine times, the f-word 17 times and s-h-i-t 16 times”.

When most people think of book censorship, they imagine political regimes and potentially book burning in Nazi Germany. What is little considered is that most books that have been challenged or banned are books for young people.

Book burning in Nazi Germany

The American Library Association’s list of the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books of 2000-2009 includes dozens of books for young people. Eight of the books or series named in the top 10 are children’s or young adult titles.

JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series occupies the number-one position because of its depiction of magic. Christian schools across the United States, United Kingdom, and even some in Australia, have refused to allow the phenomenally popular novels about the boy wizard to circulate in their libraries.

What Harry Potter shares with four other titles in the top 10 is that it is a series. Series books for young people are typically understood as having little educational value or literary merit.

L Frank Baum’s Oz books, for example, were removed from numerous public library shelves in the United States throughout the 1930s and 1940s. As Laurie Langbauer explains, librarians believed that series fiction like Oz was:

mass-produced, commercial, interminable, formulaic, and repetitive […] had no redeeming value and would harm any children exposed to it.

Books for young readers are often challenged or banned because they conflict with adult perceptions of childhood innocence. Depictions of sex pose the most obvious threat to adults’ understanding of the sacred space of childhood.

Judy Blume’s teen novels were highly sought after in my primary school because of their discussion of puberty and developing sexuality. Four of her novels appear on the challenged books list from 2000-2009, even though the most recent of these was published more than three decades ago.

Blume began publishing in the 1970s and has pointed out that this period was more open to discussions of teen sexuality. Her controversial novel Forever, she explains, was:

used in several school programs then, helping to spur discussions of sexual responsibility.

Blume laments that her novels would never be used in this way today. In 2013, she used her fame to assist after The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (number 10 on the ALA banned list) was removed from one Chicago school district after a complaint by a parent about sexual content.

Into the River has received literary awards and praise that distinguish it from popular series fiction. The New Zealand Review Board even highlights its potential to educate young readers. It was reclassified and banned because sex troubles adult ideas about what young people should be exposed to in fictional stories.

While age recommendations for disturbing content in books for young people are potentially useful, legal restrictions and bans are mystifying and fruitless for several reasons.

For one, young people can readily access adult fiction in public libraries and via ebooks. An obsessive focus on the books specifically marketed to young people ignores the mature themes, such as sex, drugs, violence, and horror, that they are free to explore elsewhere.

Second, young people access mature content in a range of formats, including largely unregulated internet sites and videos, and in video games, which aren’t usually expected to have an educative function.

Finally, through gritty realism and challenging content, books such as Into the River attempt to appeal to a demographic of teen boys who are reluctant readers. If the harshness of life for Indigenous, working-class, or sexually abused teens is too disturbing for adults to accept, then we would be better placed to improve these lived realities than condemn their representation in stories for young people.The Conversation

reposted from The Conversation under a CC license