Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Watch those names

I just read an article by Bev Vincent, a writer who happens to be a man, about his recent experiences with an editor who didn't know his gender and made assumptions due to his name. It's definitely a bit of a horror story, and fascinating too. I got it via J.M. McDermott, who tweeted the link with the notation: "Advantages to being ungendered initials?"

I agree with the initials thing--I mean, I write as K.C. Shaw, not Katherine Shaw or Kate Shaw or any other iteration of my real name--but I'm not so sure I agree with the ungendered part. Most people assume someone who goes by their initials is a guy. I have no idea why, actually. It ought to be ungendered. I chose initials mostly to obfuscate my sex, precisely because I write male characters at least as frequently as female characters, including The Weredeer books that are written first-person with a male main character.

Anyway, I do sometimes wonder how much a reader's assumption about an author's sex impacts the reading experience. I thought E. Nesbit was a man for years and years and years, and once I discovered the E. stood for Edith, I caught myself thinking that parts of her books are actually a little, you know, twee--when I hadn't thought that when I assumed E. stood for Edward or something. I also thought Robin Hobb was a man until after I'd read three of her books, but I don't recall that my perspective of her writing changed at all.

As for writers, I think we get lazy sometimes when it comes to names. It's an easy shorthand to name a ditzy character Candi--or name a cutthroat lawyer character Candi and make a dumb joke about it. Slightly more subtly, if I name one female character Terry and another Gwendolyn, it's easy to signal to the reader that Terry is a bit of a tomboy and Gwendolyn more of a girly-girl.

It goes both ways, of course.* A girl given the name Gwendolyn is more likely to grow up to be a girly-girl because that's how she's treated, while Theresa-known-as-Terry has the freedom to be a tomboy or a girly-girl as the whim takes her, since that's more what her name implies. Possibly that's why I've got two different characters named Terry and none named Gwendolyn. Possibly also that's why so many boys' names get appropriated for girls.

I'm rambling because I don't really have a point--I just like to talk about names--but this is a wake-up call not to make assumptions about someone because of their name. It's like judging a book by its cover, and of course none of us would ever do that, right?

*I'd quote from The Baby Name Wizard by Laura Wattenberg, the best baby name book I've found, except that the new and revised edition that just came out has the same freaking ISBN as the old edition, so that the new and revised edition I ordered from Amazon arrived as the old edition and I had to send it back, and the old edition I've had for years is now at a used book store, and I'm wishing I hadn't been quite so hasty.


BT said...

The baby names book is on my list of 'Must buy' - I seem to have a lot of lists lately.

Strangely, I don't look at the authors name, or take into consideration the possibility of their gender when reading. I buy some books because I enjoyed the author's previous work, but it's all based on the work. I'm often surprised when I review work and then find out the gender of the author, but it never alters how I feel about the work or colours my intentions to buy, or not to buy, future work from them.

I keep thinking I should know more about the authors I read, but reading your post, maybe I'm in a better place where I am.

K.C. Shaw said...

It's probably better not to know much about the author, I think. Often I don't really look at the author's name until after I'm partway through the book (or done with it). I can't say an author's name in and of itself has ever made me buy a book or not buy it, at least.

Aaron Polson said...

I'm with BT; gender doesn't really come into play when I decide to read a story/book. I think previous generations had stronger feelings about gender.

K.C. Shaw said...

I think there's still a lot of gender bias in some parts of publishing. How many romance books have a male name on the cover, for instance? I know a bunch of men must write romance books, but they use female pseudonyms. It's kind of silly, really, when you come right down to it.

Cate Gardner said...

I read Bev's blogpost the other day, I thought he handled the situation superbly. I don't take a writers gender into consideration when buying a book, it's all in the blurb (and sometimes in the cover - I know, that's so wrong).

K.C. Shaw said...

Yeah, I don't think I could have acted with such grace under the circumstances. It did sound like he was a bit fed up with the whole process already, though, so it probably wasn't as hard to say hell with it as it might have been if he was all excited about the project.

Jamie Eyberg said...

I have read crime novels written by women that were far grittier than their male counterparts. Also, people mistake my name for a woman's all the time, at least until they hear me on the phone.

K.C. Shaw said...

I hadn't thought about Jamie being a girl's name too. All the Jamies I've ever known have been guys. At this rate, we won't have any guy's names left.