Today’s guest is science fiction and fantasy author C. S. Friedman! I very much enjoyed her first novel, the space opera In Conquest Born, because of its focus on political maneuvering and intelligent, complex characters. I also had a wonderful time reading her fantasy novel Feast of Souls, the first book in The Magister trilogy, for the way it explored the consequences of using magic in that world. She’s also written many other books (that I didn’t single out only because I still need to read them!), including The Coldfire trilogy, This Alien Shore, and Dreamwalker, her most recent novel released earlier this year. Today she’s here to discuss beginning her career with a gender-neutral name and the reason many told her they figured she was a male author before realizing she was, in fact, a woman.
What’s in a Name?
In 1968 a new voice appeared in the Science Fiction community. James Tiptree Jr’s stories were powerful and dark, and combined elements traditionally associated with both “female” and “male” writing. Partly due to his never being seen in public, rumors began to circulate that Tiptree was in fact a woman. That led to a genre-wide discussion of whether or not an author’s writing style, by its very nature, must betray its owner’s gender. In Tiptree’s case the answer seemed clear to many, and was best summarized by Robert Silverberg in 1975, in his introduction to Warm Worlds and Otherwise:
There is something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing … his work is analogous to that of Hemingway … that prevailing masculinity about both of them — that preoccupation with questions of courage, with absolute values, with the mysteries and passions of life and death as revealed by extreme physical tests.
He was wrong, of course, as were many others who had come to the same conclusion. Tiptree was not only a woman, but (as she described herself later) “an old lady in Virginia.” That revelation inspired many to question the influence of gender in writing style, and perhaps more importantly, the impact of gender assumptions in reader response.
In 1985, when I launched my first novel, In Conquest Born, the majority of science fiction readers were male, and many had an innate prejudice against works by female authors. This was one of the reasons I chose to use my initials as a pen name, as did many other women at that time: the odds were good that any name with initials represented a woman, and everyone knew that, but it left the matter nebulous enough that maybe a male reader would take your book down from the shelf and look at it, rather than just dismissing it out of hand.
But how much did the gender of a name really impact sales? Enough that writers like Rhondi Salsitz sometimes published books under both male and female pen names. As Charles Ingrid, Rhondi wrote action-packed military novels geared towards a young male audience; as Elizabeth Forrest, she wrote novels that focused more on relationships and character development. She did both quite successfully, and her Sand Wars series sold well. But would her military fiction have been as successful with a woman’s name on the cover? Unlikely. Many readers still shared Silverberg’s assumption that traditional “masculine” themes could not be properly understood or expressed by women.
(I will leave his assumption that “courage” and “absolute values” are inherently masculine qualities for another blog…)
My own first novel was neither male nor female in flavor, but had a protagonist of each gender. In order to make those protagonists believable, I had to be able to get into both their heads and understand what made them tick. In addition, there were aspects of male sexuality that impacted the development of one of my fictional societies. I didn’t perceive it as going against my nature to address such things. I was a writer, and being able to write from a male perspective was part of my job.
We were all curious about how my work would be perceived if the reader had no gender to attach it to, and so, as a kind of experiment, mine wasn’t revealed immediately. Gendered pronouns in my marketing materials were carefully avoided, and no information was offered in any sales meeting that would clarify the issue. It was a short-lived experiment, granted; as I soon started doing book signings the truth became clear. But the results were interesting.
Overall, the split was about 50/50, with slightly more readers guessing I was female, and slightly more marketing people guessing I was male. Since I am indeed a woman, I was most interested in the male side of that statistic. What was there about my writing that revealed my true masculine nature?
I expected to hear traditional reasons — such as my use of bloody combat scenes and themes of power and conquest–but the answer I got was quite different…and very interesting.
Many readers thought I was male because I understood how men thought. Women couldn’t usually do that, I was told. Or else I must have had some special gift, or unique experience, that made such a thing possible for me, while most women couldn’t do it.
One fan asked me bluntly at a con. “How do you know so much about how men think?”
I answered, equally bluntly, “I ask them.”
That’s it. The whole secret.
One of my characters in the Magister Trilogy was a prostitute. I’ve never been a prostitute. I needed to know how that might affect one’s self-image, and impact personal sexual relationships. So I found someone who has been a prostitute, and asked about all that. She offered some fascinating insights, and helped shape that character.
In The Wilding I wrote a scene in which an attempted rape was interrupted by the victim pulling out a weapon at a climactic moment. Knowing that men and women approach sex differently, I turned to some male friends to advise me. One of them told me to imagine this:
A man and a woman are having sex, when suddenly there is an explosion upstairs. A woman would stop what she was doing, and try to get away from danger. The man would finish what he’s doing and then, when it’s over—maybe—notice that the ceiling collapsed on him.
IMHO, There are no great secrets in either male or female nature that the other can’t discover. There are no themes of special interest to either gender that a good writer can’t explore. The best works combine both male and female literary tradition, with gripping action and good character development and interesting social commentary. More and more, readers are coming to expect that, and they are open to any author who can provide it…regardless of his or her gender.
Recently a fan asked me, if I was launching my career today, would I use my initials?
Probably not, I told her. No need.
Though I still do like the way they sound…